Debbie Ford, Chief Nursing Officer at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson, was the first Ochsner Health employee to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at 9:07 a.m. on Monday, December 14, 2020. (Photo provided by Ochsner Health)
Over 8 percent of people living in New Orleans and its immediate suburbs had received a COVID-19 vaccine shot as of Tuesday (Jan. 26) — a better rate than any other region in the state.
But residents in that area have also had more vaccine available to them. Louisiana has sent more initial doses per capita into New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs than any other area of the state, according to data provided by the state Department of Health.
Health care providers in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes have received enough doses to give approximately one in every nine residents their first shot of the two-part vaccine protocol.
Across Louisiana, the state has only distributed enough vaccine for one out of every 14 people to receive their first dose, based on the Illuminator’s analysis of data provided by the Louisiana Department of Health.
The area of the state that has the lowest vaccination rate — Lake Charles and its surrounding Southwest Louisiana parishes — is one of the regions that has received the fewest doses per person since vaccinations started in mid-December.
At 3.6 percent on Tuesday, the Lake Charles area’s vaccination rate was less than half that of the New Orleans area. In that region, the state gave providers enough vaccine to give initial shots to just one in 23 people, according to health department data. Proportionately, that’s a little over a third of the vaccine doses that the New Orleans region received.
The information provided by the Department of Health is incomplete. It doesn’t account for vaccine doses provided directly to nursing homes and long-term care facilities for patients and staff by national pharmacy chains.
But the data provides a window into why first-dose vaccine rates in some areas — namely Southwest and Central Louisiana — may be so much lower than those in the New Orleans region.
The Department of Health has tweaked the regional vaccine allocations in response to the disparity in vaccine rates. It has started distributing doses to their nine health care regions on a per capita basis.
“The allocation, we realized, was not working once we saw the outcomes,” said spokesman Kevin Litten. “That led to early gaps, and we recognized we needed to narrow those gaps.”
The Lake Charles delegation in the Louisiana Legislature was also assured by the health department last week that Southwest Louisiana would start receiving more vaccine, after lawmakers raised concerns about the region’s low number of doses, said Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles.
“They are going to start giving us a little bit more vaccine,” Abraham said in an interview. “They acknowledged the numbers got skewed.”
Not all parts of Louisiana with fewer doses of vaccine ended up with a low vaccine rate like Lake Charles.
The Northshore and River parishes — including St. Tammany — received around the same number of doses per capita as the Lake Charles region, but have a far higher vaccination rate (7 percent) overall. The number of people in the Northshore region who have received the vaccine (41,000) is actually higher than the number of doses the state provided to that region. So it’s likely that some people on the Northshore received doses of vaccine from a provider in the New Orleans area.
The two COVID-19 vaccines are still not available widely in Louisiana. Only around 890,000 of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents meet the criteria to get them. Those who qualify are mainly health care employees, nursing home residents and people 70- years and over.
The New Orleans region could have a higher vaccination rate because it has more health care workers per capita than other parts of the state. It’s home to three major hospital systems.
But most people who have received the first vaccine dose appear to qualify based on their age. The Department of Health says 55 percent of people who have gotten their first shot are age 70 and over.
Still, the distribution of vaccine since seniors became eligible has not been proportional to where people who are 70 and over live in the state.
The Central Louisiana region, which includes Alexandria, has the largest percentage of residents 65 and over — 25 percent of the population — but received fewer doses per person than the New Orleans area over the last four weeks. Central Louisiana — with eight parishes — also has the lowest vaccination rate (4.8 percent) next to the Lake Charles region.
David Holcombe, a doctor and the state’s regional medical director for Central Louisiana, believes his area and Lake Charles may have received few vaccine doses — and have lower vaccination rates — because they aren’t home to a major health care system that has been making large vaccine requests of the state.
The two major hospitals in Alexandria, Holcombe said, have offered the vaccine to their staff, but don’t have the resources to do large-scale vaccinations of people in the wider community, including those 70 and over.
“The areas that are having a lot more allocations, especially per capita, almost always have very large medical systems,” Holcombe said. Those medical systems “are making very hefty vaccine requests.”
Ochsner, the largest health care provider in Louisiana, first offered the vaccine to its own workforce, but has since moved on to vaccinating thousands of community members.
It has hospitals in the New Orleans area, Monroe, Shreveport, Lafayette as well as major health care facilities in the Baton Rouge region, but Ochsner has no facilities in Central Louisiana. In the Lake Charles area, it runs some outpatient clinics but doesn’t oversee the biggest hospital system.
By its own account, Ochsner is a major distributor of the vaccine in Louisiana. It had given out 86,000 doses as of Monday, which would account for nearly a quarter of all doses given out in the entire state.
“We’re pretty sure we have vaccinated the most people,” said Ochsner’s CEO Warner Thomas Monday.
That could mean that places like Central Louisiana and the Lake Charles region — without a major Ochsner presence — have been at a disadvantage.
“You have 900-pound gorillas” in health care in some regions, Holcombe said.
Major healthcare systems like Ochsner can more easily store the vaccine, particularly the one produced by Pfizer. The vaccine not only has to be kept at an extremely low temperature, but also comes in packages of 975 doses. That makes it difficult for small providers, like independent pharmacists, to use. They prefer the Moderna vaccine, which comes in packages of 100 doses, Litten said.
Still, the state may be shifting away from giving Ochsner and other major hospitals the largest share of its vaccine supply. Ochsner told the media that it had received far fewer doses from the state this week than it had earlier in the month. It caused the healthcare system to cancel about 20,000 vaccine appointments earlier this week.
The state also chastised health care providers — including Ochsner and Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge — for prioritizing its own patients in community vaccine distribution. Such a prioritization would have put people in the Lake Charles area and Central Louisiana at a disadvantage, since they are less likely than to be Ochsner or Our Lady of the Lake patients.
State officials told all providers they could lose out on vaccine doses in the future if they didn’t open up vaccine appointments to all people, regardless of whether they are a patient or not.
Ochsner says it is complying, but when vaccine appointments open up again, people will have to register for a “MyOchsner” account to schedule with an Ochsner hospital, which is mostly available over the internet.
Holcomb said that using a booking system that mostly exists online for vaccine appointments limits people in Central Louisiana, particularly people who are 70 and over. Central Louisiana has the largest percentage of very poor people in the state. About 17 percent the population live in households earning $15,000 or less annually.
“They don’t have internet access. They don’t have computers,” he said.
In the Alexandria area, Holcomb believes the best way to boost the vaccine rate is to allow the state’s Office of Public Health to set up vaccination sites, on a scale similar to what hospitals in other regions are doing. The public health office already runs successful mass vaccinations in Central Louisiana for illnesses other than COVID-19 every year. The community is used to that type of outreach already, he said.
“Last year, we did 700 vaccinations in a single day,” he said.
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