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Gov. John Bel Edwards gets COVID booster and flu vaccine; urges Louisiana to do the same

john bel edwards booster shot.jpg
Courtesy of the Office Of Governor John Bel Edwards
Gov. John Bel Edwards gets a COVID-19 booster shot and the flu vaccine at Baton Rouge General Hospital on Oct. 6, 2021.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and top state public health officials rolled up their sleeves to receive the COVID-19 booster shots and the flu vaccine Wednesday to increase vaccination rates ahead of what could be a severe flu season.

The event took place as Louisiana emerges from the fourth — and deadliest — COVID-19 surge the state has experienced since the pandemic began last year.

On Wednesday the Louisiana Department of Health reported 920 new COVID-19 cases and 34 additional deaths.

Hospitalizations have decreased drastically since the peak of the fourth surge in August. On Wednesday, fewer than 640 individuals with COVID-19 were hospitalized, down from the all-time high of 3,002 on Aug. 17.

While the state has made great strides in reducing the spread of the delta variant, Edwards urged Louisianans to stay vigilant to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, recommending social distancing, wearing masks indoors, getting vaccinated and seeking COVID-19 booster shots “as soon as you can.”

In August, the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee on immunization practices first recommended a third “booster” dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for certain immunocompromised individuals six months after completing the first two dose series.

A month later, the FDA expanded their recommendation for Pfizer booster shots to include anyone age 65 or older and people 18 to 64 years old who live or work in settings where they are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus and those with certain medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The qualifying conditions cover a wide range and include cancer, breathing disorders, immune deficiency disorders, high blood pressure, elevated body mass index and many others.

Millions of Louisianans meet the age, residency, workplace and/or medical requirements needed to qualify for a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but according to the state department of health, only about 80,000 people in the state have received the booster shot so far.

Edwards and State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter joined their ranks Wednesday after receiving their booster shots at Baton Rouge General’s Mid-City Campus. Both also received the annual flu vaccine alongside Louisiana Secretary of Health Dr. Courtney Phillips, who is not yet eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot.

“Getting a flu shot is incredibly important every year, but it is more important during a pandemic like we are experiencing right now,” Edwards said. “Because if you go to the hospital with the flu, you are taxing the same part of the healthcare delivery system that you would tax if you, in fact, had COVID.”

But the number of flu cases and deaths plummeted during the 2020-2021 flu season due in part to COVID-19 mitigation measures, including the statewide mask mandate and social distancing rules imposed by Edwards.

This year, many of those restrictions have been relaxed and compliance with the remaining COVID regulations has waned, increasing the need for a robust flu vaccination campaign, Phillips said.

“We know the efforts of our healthcare workers and healthcare entities have made tremendous strides, but we’re not out of the woods,” Phillips said, noting that many hospitals are still struggling with staffing after the latest COVID-19 surge strained hospitals' abilities to provide care.

“We owe this to the healthcare workers who have been in the trenches doing this for the last 18 months,” Phillips said.

The state’s third coronavirus surge, which began during the 2020 holiday season, coincided with the typical peak of flu season. The state’s top public health officials said they were lucky that last season’s flu infections and hospitalizations were lower than usual, but they do not expect that luck to hold.

Edgardo Tenreiro, CEO of Baton Rouge General, is concerned that a tough flu season could further tax the state’s struggling healthcare system. He noted that the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions are the most likely to be hospitalized with the flu, but urged everyone to take the risk seriously.

“At any age and regardless of other medical conditions, we know that it’s possible to get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time,” Tenreiro said. “Either one alone could put you out of work or school for quite a while, and that is a scenario we want to avoid as much as possible.”

Phillips also underscored the importance of children age 11 and younger receiving the annual flu vaccine.

“The best way to protect our children this flu season is to make sure they get their annual flu shot — and that we as their parents get ours," said Phillips, who brought her son Langston to get vaccinated with her.

"He’s not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Phillips said of her son. “But this is one important step in keeping him safe while we respond to both the flu and COVID-19.”

The state is hoping to use the delivery framework set up to administer COVID-19 vaccines in order to vaccinate a larger percentage of the state against the seasonal flu and address healthcare disparities.

Phillips said the state is also partnering with community organizations like the YMCA to reach people who may not seek out the shots at a brick-and-mortar healthcare facility.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.