BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Federal officials have changed their guidance to states for distributing and administering the coronavirus vaccine, but that doesn’t mean Louisiana is rushing more of its residents to the front of the line for shot eligibility.
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is keeping its current approach for now, because the state already has more interest in COVID-19 immunization than it has vaccine doses available — particularly from those aged 70 and older who are currently eligible in Louisiana.
In addition, it’s uncertain the new federal guidelines will stick. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is expected to make changes to the nation’s approach to vaccinations, including adjustments to the distribution of doses to states.
For now, Louisiana’s Democratic governor will maintain the current eligibility requirements and distribution network he’s enacted through hospitals, pharmacies and health clinics.
“It’s going to be some time before we announce any changes, if at all, to our approach with respect to priority groups,” Edwards said. “One of the reasons is we’re already focused on those most vulnerable in Louisiana, those who are 70 or older, and we still have a lot of those individuals who have yet to be vaccinated who want the vaccine.”
In addition to the elderly, the vaccine in Louisiana is available to health care employees, EMS workers, firefighters, people with kidney failure and people who live and work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
About 850,000 people out of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents fall into the current eligibility categories, according to Edwards administration estimates. More than 170,000 people have received at least the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, according to the latest data from the state health department.
That means about 4% of Louisiana’s population has started the two-shot vaccination process.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s administration changed its guidance to states, widening its recommendations for eligibility after a sluggish start to getting shots in arms around the country. The new guidance urged states to immediately start vaccinating other groups lower down the priority scale, including people age 65 and older and younger people with certain health problems.
But states create their own eligibility standards.
Edwards already has set the next vaccine priority group when Louisiana expands its eligibility beyond the current list. But it likely will be weeks or possibly months before the state moves to that next cohort of people.
The list for that next priority group — whenever it becomes eligible — doesn’t directly match the latest Trump administration guidance.
Louisiana’s next priority group includes hundreds of thousands more people: grocery store workers, public transit employees, K-12 school employees and teachers, day care workers, post office employees, essential government response workers, judges, the National Guard and other military staff, prison guards and more.
Edwards said he might tweak the list before Louisiana opens eligibility to that group.
“We don’t have to make that decision yet, because we’re not there,” he said. “When we move to that next group, that group may look a little different, a little larger than it currently does based on the recommendations we’ve gotten.”
When Louisiana will broaden vaccination eligibility to that next group remains uncertain — and entirely up to the governor.
Edwards said he’ll open shots to more people when demand from those currently eligible lessens. His benchmark is when 20% of available vaccine appointments are not getting filled, the state will move to the next order of priority.
Louisiana also has to make sure it has enough vaccine available to give people the second shot required within weeks after the first dose. That’s a delicate balancing act when states find out how many vaccine doses they’ll receive from the federal government for the upcoming week only a few days before distribution.
Another change announced by federal officials might impact the number of doses states receive, if the Biden administration continues it. The Trump administration said the federal government will base each state’s allocation of vaccines partly on how successful states have been in administering those already provided.
Louisiana’s made significant strides in improving its vaccination reach after a slow pace across the first few weeks of the rollout. It ranked 16th among states Friday for the number of doses administered per capita, according to data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after earlier being in the bottom tier of states.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.