Ochsner Health was the single largest recipient of COVID-19 vaccine from Louisiana during the first nine weeks of distribution, with its facilities getting about 20 percent of all doses given out by the state, according to an analysis done by Louisiana Illuminator of data publicly released by the Louisiana Department of Health.
Ochsner facilities — including pharmacies, hospitals, hospital partners, doctor’s offices and clinics — received 142,345 of the 703,600 doses the state gave out in total from Dec. 15 through Feb. 12, according to the health department’s data.
Ochsner is likely the largest recipient of vaccine because it is also the largest health care provider in the state — by far. It has facilities in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Monroe, Shreveport, Lafayette and on the Northshore. It also partners with one of the hospital systems in Southwest Louisiana.
“They request more vaccine than any other provider, and they use it quickly. Because they do have so many hospitals, clinics and pharmacies they end up receiving a larger percentage of the vaccines,” wrote Kevin Litten, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health, in an email Friday.
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No other single health care provider or system comes even close to Ochsner’s vaccine allocation from the state, and while Oschsner’s geographic presence is wide, it’s not clear what percentage of all people seeking healthcare in Louisiana are Ochsner clients and patients. It is not the dominant health care provider in all the markets where it operates.
The state’s next biggest allotment was sent into long-term care facilities, which are owned and run by several entities. The state initially set aside 96,300 vaccine doses for these settings, including nursing homes, though it ended up diverting some of those doses to Walmart pharmacies after they went unused.
After Ochsner, LCMC Health — a hospital and health care system in the New Orleans area — was the biggest single benefactor of vaccine, with 51,525 doses through nine weeks. Then, it was Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, with 33,280 doses.
In all, Ochsner received as much vaccine as the next five biggest private health care networks in Louisiana combined, according to an analysis of the data provided by the health department.
The state data is imperfect. It doesn’t account for all vaccine doses given out in Louisiana. Just four days after officials said around 703,600 doses had been distributed, the state was also saying that around 812,00 doses of vaccine had been administered to Louisiana residents. The federal government has given out thousands of doses through federal prisons, immigration detention centers, military bases, Indian Health Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs which the state doesn’t control and aren’t included in its own data set, Litten said.
By its own account, Ochsner Health has given out many more doses of vaccine than it has been allocated. Louisiana data shows it gave Ochsner 142,345 doses through Feb. 12, but Ochsner said it had given out 175,149 doses of vaccine through the end of the day on Feb. 18 — a gap that can’t be explained by a new shipment in the intervening days.
Dawn Pevey, who oversees service lines and systems for Ochsner, said she believes that discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Ochsner — as well as several other providers — are sometimes getting extra doses of vaccine out of the vaccine vials sent to them. These haven’t been accounted for in the state’s numbers during the first few weeks of vaccine distribution, she said in an interview Friday.
“The state database counts five doses per vial, and you know you can get six doses out of most vials,” she said.
Ochsner may be getting more vaccine doses from the state than anyone else, but they still have the ability to distribute far more than they are receiving, Pevey said. Typically, Ochsner receives about 10,000 to 11,00 doses every week, but the health care system has the capability to administer up to 75,000 vaccine doses per week if it could receive more supply.
Ochsner also has the capacity to store up to 2 million doses of vaccine at one time, Pevey said. (Each person, at this point, is still required to get two doses of the vaccine, though that is expected to change in the future.)
Vaccine supply is far from just an Ochsner problem. Louisiana and several other states believe they could be vaccinating people more quickly if they had more doses. Some of the smallest providers of vaccine in the state are also frustrated by the lack of supply.
“Our pharmacists that get 100 doses per week? They go through them in two or three days,” said Randal Johnson, president of the Louisiana Independent Pharmacies Association. “We have pharmacists that still have a hundred people over 65 on waiting lists for the vaccine because they can’t get doses sent to them.”
Louisiana has prioritized hospitals over other types of healthcare providers — such as pharmacies or clinics — when it comes to vaccine distribution.
About half of all the vaccine doses the state distributed — around 350,000 doses — through the first nine weeks of its vaccine program went directly to a hospital. By comparison, pharmacies received about 126,500 doses during that time period. Federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics received about 35,400 doses.
Experts said it makes sense that hospitals have received such a great share of the vaccine. In Louisiana, vaccine eligibility was largely limited to people who worked for health care systems and the patients and staff of long-term care facilities like nursing homes during the first three weeks of distribution in December. Also, those experts said, hospitals employ more health care workers than other types of facilities, so it makes sense they would have gotten more vaccine doses in the early days.
“Proportionally, hospitals will get less as some of the priority groups change,” said Paul Salles, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association.
But hospitals still receive more vaccine doses than other types of providers. From late January through the middle of February, about a third of the state’s vaccine supply went directly to hospitals. A quarter of it went to pharmacies and around 9 percent went to federally qualified health centers, according to the state data.
“Hospitals continue to request the most vaccine and use vaccine the quickest. The pharmacies are part of our ‘low and wide’ strategy which means widely distributed vaccine at many providers, but in lower amounts than hospitals receive,” said Litten, with the health department.
Pharmacists argue that as more people become eligible for the vaccine, they should receive a large share of the vaccine shipment because they are a more convenient provider than a hospital. They have more locations and are found in neighborhoods and rural communities where hospitals aren’t located.
“Cameron Parish is the only parish without an independent pharmacist,” Johnson said.
Another population option for distributing vaccine in other parts of the country has been mass vaccination sites. Louisiana government has, so far, resisted setting up mass sites, such as those seen in sports stadiums elsewhere. Gov. John Bel Edwards and top health officials have said the state doesn’t have enough vaccine doses yet to make those effective and equitable.
Yet several hospitals have taken their vaccine allocation from the state and set up their own larger vaccination sites.
Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center has moved its vaccinations to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. Ochsner has done large vaccination sites at Zephyr Field in Metairie and Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. The public health department in the Alexandria area is also partnering with local hospitals to provide drive-through vaccine sites.
The distribution of vaccine is likely to shift again soon as well. The state may be shipping more vaccine doses directly to employers. Gov. John Bel Edwards extended eligibility to primary and secondary school employees this week and state health officials said some school districts might opt to get the vaccine sent directly to them so that they can vaccinate their staff on site.
Freelance data journalist Jared Kendall contributed to this report.