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Louisiana expects 1st coronavirus vaccine doses this month

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BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana should receive its first doses of a coronavirus vaccine within weeks if the proposed drug wins federal approval as expected, and frontline hospital workers and nursing home residents and staff should be vaccinated by the early part of January, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday.

The first glimpse of those vaccine details came at a briefing where Edwards was joined by Adm. Brett Giroir, the federal assistant health secretary who oversees U.S. testing operations for the Trump administration.

While the details sounded promising, they rely on federal authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine — expected first for the vaccine produced by Pfizer — and a rollout of vaccine doses that will be rationed by states’ populations.

Giroir cautioned that it will still be months before most people have access to a vaccine.

“It may be May or June by the time most Americans are able to get vaccinated. But this is extremely good news, and the light is at the end of the tunnel, and it’s a very bright, positive light,” he said.

Edwards said Louisiana expects to receive around 40,000 doses in the first week that vaccine shipments start to go out, and then a similar amount the next week. Numbers should escalate from there as other drug companies’ vaccines become available, he said.

Louisiana is still determining how to prioritize vaccine distribution after hospital workers, nursing home residents and employees and other long-term care facilities receive the doses they need.

Even as the officials talked of vaccinations, they also urged Louisiana residents to double down on precautions until those doses are widely available, such as wearing masks, avoiding crowded indoor settings and staying distanced.

“Louisiana certainly has entered a new and dangerous third surge of COVID-19 infection,” Edwards said.

Giroir said the state is seeing an increase in hospitalizations from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus “that has the potential to overwhelm the hospital system.”

Louisiana’s health department said 1,288 people in the state were hospitalized Wednesday with COVID-19, more than double the 596 COVID-19 patients hospitalized a month ago. Louisiana’s death toll from COVID-19 grew by another 37 confirmed deaths to 6,231.

In addition to hospital staffing concerns, open intensive care unit beds were shrinking in some parts of the state. For example, only 12 ICU beds out of 157 remained available in the Lafayette region, according to the health department.

Amid Louisiana’s third spike of the coronavirus outbreak, craft brewers and bar owners Wednesday told lawmakers that Edwards’ COVID-19 restrictions are damaging their operations and threaten to bankrupt their businesses.

Microbrewery representatives told the House Ways and Means Committee that their taprooms shouldn’t be treated the same as bars, which are largely required to shutter indoor operations under the tightened virus rules the Democratic governor enacted last week. The brewers also called for the ability to deliver their beer directly to consumers, like other businesses are allowed to do with their products.

Bar owners criticized Edwards’ rules limiting indoor live music performances as too strict, largely unworkable and unnecessary to protect public safety.

“There’s nothing here that really makes a lot of sense,” said Johnny Blancher, with Rock ‘n’ Bowl, a bowling alley and nightclub with locations in New Orleans and Lafayette. “We’re being overly regulated, and we’re in a position where we’re losing money hand over fist. It is costing us more to operate than it would to close.”

Many of the complaints involved restrictions that Edwards had in place even before the stricter rules were issued.

Republican lawmakers were sympathetic to the businesses — but have few options to change the rules beyond trying to pressure the governor. A judge rejected House Republicans’ effort to rescind Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions, a case that will be appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Ways and Means Chairman Stuart Bishop, a Lafayette Republican, urged Ernest Legier, the governor’s alcohol and tobacco control commissioner, to “come up with some ideas, bring them to the governor” for tweaking the rules.

“We need to come up with a plan to start to save these businesses,” Bishop said.

Under Edwards’ current rules, restaurants, gyms, salons, malls and other businesses deemed nonessential must limit their customers to 50% of their occupancy rate. Most bars are limited to takeout, delivery and outside seating only. Indoor live music is largely off-limits because of the parameters required for crowds and performance standards.

The rules expire Dec. 23, but Edwards has indicated he expects to renew them into the new year.

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