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Rash of available vaccine appointments 'concerning' to health officials, led to eligibility expansion

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BATON ROUGE - Last weekend Our Lady of the Lake officials became concerned when they noticed a large number of COVID-19 vaccine appointments had gone unclaimed.

"It made me very uncomfortable this weekend that we actually had open vaccine slots," Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer at OLOL, said Tuesday, in a wide-ranging interview with WBRZ marking one year since Louisiana's first confirmed case. "Now, that didn't occur throughout the state, but we did hear from other regions that they also had open vaccine slots for the first time this weekend."

For months, demand for the vaccine had far exceeded supply.

"We are now past that phase, and we really eclipsed that somewhere around last week," O'Neal said. "Luckily, it happened at the same time we're anticipating so much more vaccine...but people aren't beating down our door. Now we reach the harder part, which is convincing the next wave of people that you do need this vaccine."

O'Neal says the hospital system saw its biggest single day of cancellations on Feb. 27, when the FDA approved J&J's single-dose vaccine, suggesting that many had their minds set on which vaccine they wanted.

Those unused appointments around the state ultimately led Gov. John Bel Edwards to expand eligibility Tuesday to people 16 and older with certain health conditions.

"If I have open slots and the community is coming to get them, then that's a trend that will continue," O'Neal said, adding that she did not like seeing open appointment times.

"That's what's disturbing to me," she said. "So hopefully opening up the age [Tuesday] fixes that a good bit, and we open up to a new group of people who really want that vaccine."

In the few days since the eligibility expansion that affected millions of Louisianans, appointments at several weekend events began filling up fast.

And hospitals will have to make sure all their doses get used, or risk losing future shipments.

In a letter Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health informed providers that "all prime (first) doses of COVID-19 vaccine need to be used within seven days of arrival."

Providers that fail to do that "will be removed from future allotments of vaccine," the letter said.

O'Neal said the vaccine can only protect the people who receive it.

"If we're not putting every vaccine we have available each week into somebody's arm that week, we're not winning," O'Neal said. "The way to win this pandemic is to vaccinate people as quickly as possible."

Days after Edwards expanded the state's eligibility, President Joe Biden directed states states to open up eligibility to all adults by May 1.

The governor's office said Friday that Edwards "thinks that it’s very doable for Louisiana to meet, if not exceed, President Biden’s May 1 goal of making all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines."

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