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Flu clinic used as test run for covid-19 shots

by ANGELICA LAVITO BLOOMBERG NEWS | November 22, 2020 at 4:59 a.m.

Shreveport recently completed a test run, one of about a dozen across the state, in getting Louisianans vaccinated quickly once a covid-19 vaccine is available.

Health officials there organized the community's first-ever drive-thru flu shot clinic in the large parking lot of the Louisiana state fairgrounds.

Drivers rolled down their windows and rolled up their sleeves as they pulled up to tents for the largest vaccination event the regional health department has ever hosted.

Cheerful and fast-working nurses jabbed the drivers with vaccines. Within about five minutes, people were on their way, exiting the parking lot while passing a row of food stands selling corn dogs, roasted nuts and lemonade.

That's how smoothly officials hope the covid-19 vaccinations go. A poor state that's seen its share of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, Louisiana is trying to get out front of the challenge. The state's health department decided early on to run test clinics in each of its nine public-health regions, using this winter's flu shot as practice to eventually distribute millions of covid-19 vaccine doses.

"Unlike with testing, we have the luxury to have four to five months to plan," said Frank Welch, a doctor who is Louisiana's immunization director.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Still, the pressure is on. The worst pandemic to ravage the country in a century is raging, and hospitals are filling up across the country as winter approaches. Fortunately, vaccine formulas from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE as well as Moderna Inc. have displayed great efficacy in early test results, with initial shipments perhaps just weeks away.

But even in the best-case scenario of a timely vaccine approval, state governments will struggle to get the virus under control. And they must do so amid a chaotic transfer of presidential power and a lack of clear policy guidance.

Making matters more challenging is the lack of confidence many Americans have in the safety of a vaccine. Only about half of adults say they would get a covid-19 vaccine if one were available, according to a September survey from the Pew Research Center.

Louisiana has an ambitious plan to vaccinate its nearly 5 million residents. The first doses will be limited, most likely, to a few health-care workers. Louisiana has a high number of infections and deaths as a percent of its population. About 212,000 people have fallen ill with the novel coronavirus, and more than 6,200 have died.

Shreveport leans Democratic, with surrounding Caddo Parish having voted for Joe Biden in the presidential election. Mayor Adrian Perkins calls it the most conservative Democratic parish in the entire state. Mask wearing and social distancing have been a hard sell. Now, like places everywhere in the U.S., the coronavirus has upended lives and routines.

The fairgrounds flu-vaccine clinic helps show what the state is up against. Cars trickle in more slowly than regional public health director Martha Whyte would like. The day started with a supply of 1,500 shots, but only 400 people showed up. Whyte, who is a doctor, still deems the day a success.

Perhaps, she speculated, most people already got their flu shots. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged people to get vaccinated before the end of October.

Ensuring vaccines are distributed equitably is a priority of the state's covid-19 vaccination campaign. Perkins and Whyte agree that the fairgrounds offer a good place to reach the most vulnerable residents, even if many won't be able to drive there on their own. The fairgrounds run along a bus route, which could easily enable walk-up shots.

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