Louisiana getting creative with vaccine outreach as hesitancy persists

Brass bands playing at a 24-hour drive-thru coronavirus vaccine event. Doses delivered to commercial fishermen minutes from the docks. Pop-up immunization clinics at a Buddhist temple, homeless shelters, truck stops and casinos, with shots available at night or on weekends.

And now, door-to-door outreach in neighborhoods where few people have gotten vaccinated.

Louisiana is making a full-court press to get shots in arms, with aggressive—and sometimes creative—outreach to make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated. The effort comes as vaccine supplies are surging but demand is not.

The state has enlisted health care workers, colleges, community groups and church pastors to help cajole the hesitant and set up vaccination events. Gov. John Bel Edwards has thrown open vaccine access to anyone age 16 or older. The health department has launched a call center to answer vaccine questions and set up appointments for those without internet access or limited tech skills.

Civic organizations and faith-based groups working with the state have started using get-out-the-vote tactics, knocking on doors and making phone calls, to pitch the vaccine.

But even with widespread ease of access, Louisiana officials struggle with a problem almost as vexing as COVID-19 itself: How to persuade those who are iffy about the shot to roll up their sleeves.

“I, quite frankly, don’t know what folks are waiting for. It just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m going to continue to appeal to them,” Edwards says.

Health officials anticipate a difficult time reaching the threshold scientists believe is needed to stop uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, a benchmark of 70% or higher of the population having immunity either through vaccination or past infection. 

State surveys indicate 40% or more of Louisiana residents are hesitant about getting the vaccine or entirely unwilling to do so. And while Louisiana is administering doses at rates greater than some other Southern states, it remains among the bottom six in vaccinating adults 18 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other states also are trying novel approaches, either because they’ve seen noticeable dips in vaccine interest or have concerns about equitable access. 

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, says she’s hearing from people who believe vaccine misinformation from social media, but also from those who simply don’t have a sense of urgency about getting a shot. Others worry about side effects.

Nearly 31% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine that can require two doses, according to state data. More than 22% have been fully immunized.

Some parishes have started delivering vaccines to seniors who are disabled at home and worked out deals with rideshare services to offer free transportation to vaccination events.

Such vaccine outreach may be further complicated by this week’s pause of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine after reports of rare blood clots in six women who received it. Experts say it’s too early to tell whether that will increase reluctance in Louisiana and elsewhere. See the full story from The Associated Press.