Louisiana is “ready to go” once the federal government approves emergency use of the first coronavirus vaccine in the United States, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday.
As Edwards spoke, an independent advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) met to consider, and eventually endorse, the widespread use of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine — the second-to-last regulatory hurdle before the vaccine can be administered to U.S. patients. The FDA is expected to quickly grant final approval.
Edwards said some Louisiana health care workers could receive the vaccine as soon as this weekend. He expects the state to complete the Phase 1A of the immunization process by early January, vaccinating as many as 135,000 frontline healthcare workers and 80,000 nursing home residents.
But Edwards warned Louisianans not to celebrate prematurely. The immunization process will take months, and Louisiana, like the rest of the nation, is in the midst of a deadly resurgence of the pandemic.
“There really is light at the end of the tunnel,” Edwards said. “In the short term, that light is a freight train — it’s a COVID surge coming straight at us — but there’s also the vaccine and the promise that it holds for ending the pandemic.”
The White House Coronavirus Task Force report issued Dec. 6 stated that “the current vaccine implementation will not substantially reduce viral spread, hospitalizations or fatalities until the 100 million Americans with comorbid conditions can be completely immunized.”
Louisiana is in line to receive 39,000 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine in the first shipment and an additional 40,000 one week later. All of those vaccines have been allocated for frontline healthcare workers and will be sent to hospitals, which are properly equipped to store it at the ultra-cold temperatures it requires.
The FDA advisory committee is scheduled to consider emergency use authorization for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17. Once approved, state health officials said Louisiana will receive an initial shipment of 80,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine. Those doses will be allocated first to residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and then redirected to frontline healthcare workers not covered with the initial shipments from Pfizer.
Both vaccines require two doses for maximum effectiveness. The federal government is temporarily withholding half of the available doses and has pledged to deliver the required second dose at the appropriate time.
Louisiana’s immunization plan has earned praise from President Donald Trump and the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Edwards and the governors of Florida, Tennessee and Texas were invited to the White House Tuesday to participate in a vaccine summit.
The governors took part in a roundtable discussion on state-level vaccine distribution. Edwards was the only Democratic governor to take part.
He said Louisiana’s distribution plan was the result of months of preparation for a coronavirus vaccine and years of distributing flu vaccines.
“States have been in the business of doing this a long time,” Edwards said during Tuesday’s panel discussion. “It’s not anything new, it’s just at a scale we don’t typically have to do it at.”
In June, the state convened a 73-member task force dedicated to vaccine distribution. The panel, which included representatives from 36 organizations, conducted table-top exercises to identify any weak points in the state’s mass vaccination program. Edwards said “health equity” will be a top priority in light of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color.
Black people account for one-third of Louisiana's population, but 43 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
Once the vaccine is widely available, Edwards said the state will use “strike teams” of National Guard members to get it into those communities.
It’s unclear how many vaccines the state will receive after the initial shipments and how subsequent immunization phases will be conducted, but Edwards said he is confident that Louisiana will receive more vaccine doses each week as production ramps up and more vaccines earn federal approval.
Louisiana has seen 13,406 new cases over the last seven days and 48 of the state’s 64 parishes reported that more than 10 percent of their COVID-19 tests came back positive over the same period. Only one parish — East Feliciana — reported less than 5 percent test positivity, an important benchmark for a community’s control over the virus.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled over the last month, a trajectory Edwards described as unsustainable.
Edwards moved the state back into a modified version of Phase 2 late last month. The change limited most businesses to 50 percent occupancy, prohibited most bars from serving alcohol on site, and capped all indoor gatherings at 75 people.
But the restrictions had little impact on the family-sized gatherings that have been driving viral transmission in recent weeks. As “COVID fatigue” has set in, many people are abandoning their masks and gathering indoors with friends and extended family.
“That’s why I am imploring everybody in Louisiana to embrace the mitigation measures that work,” Edwards said, encouraging people to wear masks, limit contact with people outside their household, and to move activities outdoors. “They’re literally the only thing we can do over the next several weeks to try to reduce transmissions, reduce hospitalizations and reduce deaths.”
The Louisiana Department of Health reported a record-high 4,339 new cases on Wednesday.
Edwards said the timing was no coincidence. The previous record was set on Nov. 13, roughly two weeks after large numbers of people gathered to celebrate Halloween. This new record came 13 days after Thanksgiving, when countless families and individuals ignored the advice of state public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and traveled long distances and mixed households at large holiday gatherings.
It was also three weeks after Republican state representatives attempted to strip all of Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions through a petition process that a state judge later deemed unconstitutional..
Edwards urged Louisianans to scale back their holiday plans this year and recommit themselves to the behaviors that helped the state flatten the curve twice before.
“We need to collectively do better,” Edwards said. “While the vaccine will be critical in ending the pandemic, it’s not going to save us now.”