State officials express concern about new COVID-19 variants in Louisiana

‘UK variant could become the predominant strain,’ Edwards says

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wesley Muller)

There have been three confirmed cases of the even more contagious UK variant of the novel coronavirus, but at a Thursday press conference, the state’s public health director said, “We should all assume there’s significantly more UK variant in this state than what’s been confirmed.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards said the same thing. “It is in Louisiana. It is in the United States,” he said. “There is modeling to suggest that the UK variant could become the predominant strain of the virus by March.”

Joe Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer, said conversations he’s had with federal partners, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, about the vaccine’s efficacy against the UK variant “have been encouraging,” but there are still concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy against the Brazilian and South African variant.

The Louisiana Department of Health has yet to confirm a case of the South African and Brazilian variant in the state, but Edwards said, “we know the way this disease progresses, it’s very likely it will move across the country at some point.”

However, if the vaccine is less efficacious against the Brazilian and South African strains than the 95 percent efficacy it has against older strains, that doesn’t mean it’s useless, Kanter said. “It’s not all or nothing.”

Vaccine providers may need to add a booster shot or adjustment down the road, but “that’s a small problem to have,” he said.

Edwards expresses concern about vaccination rates in nursing homes

Of the 75,000-80,000 nursing home staff and residents, about 28,000 have been vaccinated as of Jan. 28, Kanter said, meaning 69 percent of residents and just 26 percent of staff members have received the vaccine

Edwards said he is concerned by the low percentage of nursing home staff members who received the vaccine, but Kanter said he believes a lot more nursing home employees will eventually opt to be vaccinated.

Nursing home residents and staff, along with hospital staff, were given first priority to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when distribution began in December due to the higher risks of hospitalizations and death among the nursing home’s older population.