State health officer warns of potential fourth spike as percent positivity, hospitalizations rise slightly

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People wait in the observation area after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at LM Lockhart Park in Denham Springs on Thursday, March 18, 2021.
David Gray | The News

BATON ROUGE, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – On the day Louisiana passed 1 million fully vaccinated residents, the state health officer warned of a potential fourth spike as the coronavirus shows the beginning signs of a comeback.

In a press conference marking the opening of a new federally-backed vaccination center in Baton Rouge, Dr. Joe Kanter lauded the state for its progress against the coronavirus but urged caution as percent positivity and hospitalizations have shown slight increases after several weeks of declining.

“On one hand, we have made tremendous progress in the vaccine effort,” Kanter said. “I’m proud to say that as of today we have completed the vaccine series in over 1 million people. That’s a tremendous accomplishment.

“On the other hand, we have some potential risk ahead. And I’ll tell you that while we have made great progress coming down from a high peak in cases and hospitalizations around Christmas and New Year’s, that progress has stalled in Louisiana, as it has in many places across the country.”

After reaching a peak of 13.50 percent positivity for the week of Dec. 31 – Jan. 6, the state positivity rate dropped down to 2.20 percent for the week of March 25-31, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.

Though still lower than during the winter surge, the most recent positivity rate increased to 2.60 percent. Kanter pointed out that six of the state’s nine LDH regions were reporting increases.

As percent positivity rises, hospitals are getting busier. Emergency departments across the state said they’re taking in more patients with COVID-like illnesses, particularly in younger patients, Kanter said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations, which reached a peak of 2,069 statewide in early January, fell dramatically to 292 on April 5. Since then, they have risen by 46 and were at 338 in Thursday’s report.

Kanter also mentioned the rise in the more transmissible U.K. COVID variant, which is now at 247 identified cases in Louisiana, though he noted, “We know there are many, many more cases.” Kanter mentioned federal estimates projecting the variant to be responsible for 34.4 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Louisiana, lower than the national average of 44 percent but higher than last week’s statewide estimate of 27 percent.

The slight worsening of COVID-19 figures comes roughly two weeks after Gov. John Bel Edwards loosened restrictions for businesses and social gatherings.

Kanter pointed to the recent increases in percent positivity and hospitalizations and similar trends across the country — particularly in Michigan — when he said the new drive-through site backed by FEMA could “not have come at a better time for Louisiana.”

“This is our opportunity not to protect yourself and loved ones but to bring back the life that we have had to put aside for the past year,” he said.

The federal COVID-19 community vaccine center in Baton Rouge will officially begin operations Friday, April 16.

The site will operate for eight weeks and be open Tuesday through Sunday. Hours of operation will be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

On Mondays, teams from the Louisiana National Guard will conduct mobile vaccination clinics in underserved areas.

Appointments for the vaccination center can be made on-site, online at brla.gov/GetVaccinated, or by calling the state’s newly-launched vaccine hotline at 1-855-453-0774. Kanter said the hotline has fielded around 1,000 calls from people wanting to make vaccine appointments in just under a week.

Walk-ups at the new vaccine site, which is located behind the Bon Carre Business Center on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, will also be accepted.

The mass vaccination center will be capable of administering up to 20,000 doses a week, officials said.

“Vaccinations are our best shot at beating this pandemic, and it is absolutely critical that we get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible,” Edwards said in a statement. “The vaccines are safe and effective, and we are grateful to have this center available to the community. Everyone who still needs an appointment is encouraged to make one today. Our only way out of this is by working together.”

Late last month, the state expanded vaccine eligibility to include anyone over the age of 18 (or 16 and older with the Pfizer vaccine), regardless of underlying health conditions or their employment.

As of the latest data, the state has administered more than 2.3 million vaccine doses, with over 1,035,000 residents being fully vaccinated. Based on Louisiana’s estimated 4.6 million population, around 30.3 percent of residents have initiated a vaccine series, while 21.3 percent have completed a series.

Kanter also noted that 73 percent of people age 65 and older have initiated a series.

“Those are encouraging numbers, but we still have a decent way to go,” he said.

Kanter also discussed the current pause in administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently recommended the country halt use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine following six reported cases of a “rare and severe” type of blood clot.

The six cases are among nearly 7 million administered doses of the single-shot vaccine, and none have been reported in Louisiana, which has administered 85,000 J&J doses. That accounts for about 3.7 percent of all administered doses in the state.

Kanter said the decision to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should answer questions “about how serious we take safety with these vaccines.”

“Six cases out of 7 million is what prompted this,” he said. “We have pledged to you from Day One that we will roll out these vaccines with safety and transparency, and this is the evidence of this right now.

“Nobody takes safety more seriously than the Louisiana Department of Health, and I will assure you that we will continue to be immediately transparent. We hope to get Johnson & Johnson back online soon and get more information about this, but we will not put the cart before the horse, and safety will always be the most important factor.”

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