NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A major health care system in Louisiana is outlining plans to begin giving its workers a newly approved COVID-19 vaccine.

Officials with Ochsner Health said Friday that they expect to begin distributing more than 9,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine next week to Ochsner employees who are most at risk of exposure to the virus.

Plans have been made to receive and store the vaccine in “ultra cold” freezers at facilities in suburban New Orleans, Lafayette and Shreveport for distribution to Ochsner facilities around the state. The vaccine can be refrigerated for five days after being removed from the special freezers, officials said at an online news conference.

“We hope to do vaccinations immediately after we receive the vaccine,” said Debbie Simonson, vice president for pharmacy services, during the briefing.

A U.S. government advisory panel endorsed widespread use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine Thursday and the Food and Drug Administration was expected shortly to give emergency authorization for shots to begin.

Ochsner owns operates or is affiliated with 40 hospitals and 100 clinics, most in Louisiana with some on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Vaccines will first be made available to employees who work in COVID-19 units, where workers are considered most at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus that causes the disease, system officials said. Emergency room and urgent care facility workers will also be in the top priority tier.

Ochsner does not currently plan to require employees to be vaccinated, although it will be encouraged, said Dr. Robert Hart, Ochsner's chief medical officer.

“We are having lots of conversations how important it is for all of us,” Hart said.

He added that getting as many people vaccinated as possible in the coming weeks and months is crucial to arriving at “herd immunity” and ending the pandemic.

“Waiting means more people in the hospital, more people dying, more people getting the disease,” he said.

Ochsner is to receive 9,375 doses initially, Simonson said, with more shipments expected in the coming weeks. The main camps just outside of New Orleans in Jefferson Parish will get more than 5,000 with Lafayette receiving mor than 1,300 and Shreveport close to 3,000.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Louisiana hospitals hit 1,589, according to figures posted by the state health department Friday. That has climbed sharply from around 520 in early October and is nearing the peak of 1,600 that occurred during the summer's second surge of cases. During the first wave in the spring as many as 2,000 COVID-19 patients occupied Louisiana hospital beds. The disease has been a factor in 6,767 deaths in the state as of Friday.


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