With the first batch of a COVID-19 vaccine expected to arrive in Louisiana over the next two weeks and for wider distribution by spring, will Louisiana residents immediately take advantage of it or hold off due to concerns over the experimental drug’s speedy approval?
On Nov. 19, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that Louisiana could likely receive the first batch in mid-to-late December for frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents. The news became more promising this week as the governor shared additional details, saying the first batch would be about 40,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. Distribution to the general population could come as early as May pending FDA approval, according to Assistant Health Secretary Adm. Brett Giroir.
President Donald Trump leaned heavily on the FDA, or so he often claimed, to push the vaccines through clinical trials.
“The FDA has acted as quickly as they’ve ever acted in history. … No president’s ever pushed them like I’ve pushed them either, to be honest with you,” Trump said in a video posted to Twitter back in October. The president said he was working to deliver a vaccine before election day in November.
Trump’s focus has since shifted almost entirely to unfounded claims that the election was rigged against him, but in late November, two vaccine candidates emerged seeking FDA approval for emergency use. Although the president didn’t meet his self-imposed deadline of delivering a coronavirus vaccine before the election, his “Operation Warp Speed” effort can be measured in months, whereas most other vaccines typically take about a decade to get through clinical trials.
Whether the speedy experimentation is impressive or concerning remains to be seen. For about a third of Americans, it’s concerning. They said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available this month, the majority citing concerns about side effects and how quickly the vaccines moved through trials, according to a recent Ipsos poll conducted in mid-October.
Those numbers could turn out much worse for Louisiana if influenza vaccination statistics are any indicator of the population’s willingness to vaccinate. Only about 47.5 percent — less than half — of Louisiana residents and only 44 percent of Louisiana adults chose to inoculate for the 2019-20 flu season, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Previous seasons were either roughly the same or much worse, dipping to 35.3 percent of the population in 2017-18.
That ranks Louisiana at 41st in the nation for vaccination coverage (Nevada ranked last). Out of the Southeast, Louisiana ranks sixth with North Carolina and Arkansas ahead of the pack. The national average is only 51.8 percent with Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts each stretching toward 61 percent.
An in-depth article by the Minnesota Reformer, the Illuminator’s sibling news outlet, reported how the COVID-19 vaccine is likely arriving during a moment of collapsing confidence in life-saving immunizations due to organized disinformation campaigns on Facebook and other social media. The campaigns have caused a decline in childhood vaccination rates, causing clustered outbreaks across the country of measles, whooping cough, and other diseases that hadn’t been seen in decades. Experts attributed the outbreaks to anti-vaxxers targeting communities on social media with baseless conspiracy theories.
Flu vaccination rates could indicate that COVID-19 vaccine coverage will likewise vary across the country, but that could largely depend on the one institution that has significant sway over vaccination rates — schools.
“The flu vaccine is typically lower than other vaccines like the one for measles and the others needed for school,” Louisiana Department of Health spokesman Sean Ellis said.
The decision on whether a vaccine will be required for school children is largely made at the state level and sometimes a lower parish/county or district level. Guidance typically flows from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education to their state-level counterparts. For Louisiana, this could mean the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or the state superintendent or both. It’s unclear when a vaccine would even be approved for pediatric use as none of the clinical trials so far have included children.
If Louisiana and the other 49 states end up mandating the vaccine, some people could still refuse it by electing or requesting an exemption. All states offer medical-related exemptions or waivers for children, and 45 states plus the District of Columbia offer exemptions on the basis of religious objections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Additionally, 15 states allow philosophical waivers for people who object to immunizations on the basis of personal, moral, political or other grounds. Louisiana is one of those 15.
For Daniel Weimer, a Metairie resident with kids in elementary school, the personal waiver is an option worth exploring.
“(We’d) request a waiver until we felt comfortable with the vaccine,” Weimer said.