BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards decided against loosening his coronavirus restrictions Tuesday and received his first dose of the vaccine, a day after expanding access to the shots to include Louisiana government officials involved in pandemic response work.
Though access to COVID-19 immunizations is widening, the Democratic governor announced he's maintaining Louisiana’s current business limitations and statewide mask mandate through March 3 — rather than letting them expire Wednesday. He cited concerns about the more contagious U.K. variant of the virus spreading in Louisiana, along with the risks of possible Mardi Gras gatherings despite parade cancellations.
Edwards, 54, got his Pfizer shot in the afternoon at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center campus in Baton Rouge, along with several other state officials newly able under Louisiana's latest eligibility criteria. They included Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Edwards' secretaries of labor, transportation and social services.
“I have been looking forward to this day for some time,” Edwards said, smiling shortly before he was scheduled to receive the immunization. “For me, quite frankly, waiting hasn’t been easy.”
While at Pennington, the governor discussed the creation of what could eventually become a Baton Rouge mass vaccination site, involving the biomedical research center run by Louisiana State University and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
The hospital will steer its available vaccine doses to the nearby research center location, which will scale up to a larger, community COVID-19 immunization site when Louisiana gets greater numbers of vaccine doses. For now, people will have to continue making appointments.
A similar community vaccine site involving LSU and Shreveport area hospitals already has been up and running at the Louisiana State Fair Grounds since January, offering drive-thru shots. That site also is expected to grow larger in the future when vaccine supply increases.
“I don’t believe we’re receiving the doses to do mass vaccination” so far, Edwards said. But he added: “Sites like this across our state are incredibly important.”
Edwards widened Louisiana residents' access to the coronavirus vaccine Monday, to lower the eligibility age from 70 to 65 and to newly include state and local officials handling COVID-19 response work, any remaining law enforcement not in previous priority groups and workers for the March 20 special congressional election.
Those groups join health care employees; EMS workers; firefighters; people with kidney failure; anyone aged 70 and older; people with disabilities over the age of 16 who receive community- or home-based services and their providers; and people who live and work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in having access to the shots.
With the latest additions, nearly 1.2 million of Louisiana's 4.6 million residents are eligible for the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — though demand greatly exceeds the state's available supply.
More than 448,000 people in Louisiana have received at least their first dose of the two-dose immunization so far, with about 189,000 people getting both doses, according to health department data released Tuesday.
Nearly 8,600 deaths from COVID-19 in Louisiana have been confirmed by the health department and another 500 are considered probable, but the latest spike in virus cases has lessened in recent weeks. Public health officials have warned, however, that the presence of the U.K. variant is worrying and suggests another surge is on the horizon.
Edwards' Phase 2 coronavirus restrictions enacted in late November and continuing for another 21 days require restaurants, gyms, salons and other nonessential businesses to limit customer numbers to 50% of their occupancy rate. Churches should reach no more than 75% of occupancy.
Bars are limited to takeout, delivery and outside seating, because no parish meets the low percentages of coronavirus tests returning positive required to allow indoor drinking at bars. Indoor gatherings for weddings and other events are restricted to 75 people or a maximum of 25% occupancy, whichever is less.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.