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Gov. Edwards announces more Louisianians are now eligible for COVID vaccines

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana is widening access to the coronavirus vaccine to newly include anyone aged 65 to 69, authorizing another quarter-million people for the shots if they can find an available appointment, under plans announced Thursday by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

People 70 and older had previously been allowed to receive the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in Louisiana. That will drop to 65 starting Monday, the Democratic governor said, placing Louisiana in line with at least 29 other states already following that age eligibility recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because vaccine dose supplies to states have started increasing, “I feel much more comfortable about going down to age 65 and above,” Edwards said.

Still, those newly eligible will find themselves in the same struggle their older counterparts have grappled with for weeks: trying to find a hospital, clinic or pharmacy with available vaccine doses and book an appointment or get on a list for a future possible immunization slot.

Edwards said that’s why he’s not expanding the list further to include schoolteachers, for example.

“Right now our hands are tied because of the amount of vaccine that we are receiving,” Edwards said. “The good news is it’s increasing. It’s increasing, however, slower than we would like, and it remains the limiting factor.”

Before Thursday’s announcement, the vaccine in Louisiana had been available to 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.

Beyond lowering the age, Edwards also is expanding availability to state and local officials handling COVID-19 response work, including himself, other statewide elected officials, the leader of the Louisiana National Guard, the superintendent of the Louisiana State Police and other members of the governor’s cabinet. Any remaining law enforcement not included in previous priority groups will be eligible. Also added are workers for the March 20 special congressional election and its early voting period.

Louisiana’s health and homeland security departments were developing the full list of state and local COVID-19 response officials who will be included, but the number is estimated to total up to 2,000 people, said Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens. The state will arrange the vaccinations for those government workers, who won’t have to compete for appointments through the network of providers.

Edwards said he’ll get his first dose next week: “I’m pretty excited about being able to do that.”

About 275,000 more people will be newly eligible for vaccine doses starting Monday, the lion’s share of them 65 to 69 years old. With those additions, nearly 1.2 million of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents are estimated to have access to the coronavirus shots.

But demand far outstrips supply.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been increasing the vaccine doses sent weekly to states, however, and the number of shots available in Louisiana is expected to grow larger next week, with thousands of new doses available through Walmart pharmacies.

More than 404,000 people in the state have received at least their first dose of the two-dose immunization so far, with nearly 131,000 people getting both doses, according to health department data. Louisiana ranked 15th among states Thursday in the number of vaccine doses administered per capita, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, the Edwards administration announced a new public health leader for the Louisiana Department of Health.

Kimberly Hood, a lawyer and public health administrator, will start work as assistant secretary for public health Monday. Dr. Alex Billioux left the position at the end of September, and it had been filled on an interim basis by Dr. Joe Kanter, who was doing double-duty in that job and another.

Before the promotion, Hood most recently coordinated statewide COVID-19 community testing and previously worked on a new model for Louisiana’s treatment of hepatitis C patients in the Medicaid program. Before the health department, Hood was chief operations and compliance officer at a health center and an HIV nonprofit, according to the state’s announcement.

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