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Frustrations Mount Over Vaccine Shortages in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – Ian Farrell was just two days away from getting the first of two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. He was looking forward, he said, to a major step toward life returning to normal.

So he admitted it was frustrating when he learned, without warning, that his appointment had been pushed back to March.

“Part of it was that I was so close,” Farrell told VOA, explaining his frustration, “and part of it is that my coworkers and I do work that’s not safe for us to do without being vaccinated.”

A 44-year-old social worker focused on community mental health, Farrell must go out and visit patients in their homes, a risky undertaking during a pandemic.

Social workers are renowned for their patience and understanding, and Farrell considers himself a nice guy.

“But, yeah, I kind of snapped when this poor woman called and told me my vaccination was being pushed back two months,” he said. “I can’t imagine what other, less-kind people were saying to her.”

Tens of thousands of calls like the one Farrell received have taken place across Louisiana in the past week. At Ochsner Health, the largest nonprofit health care system in the state, more than 21,000 people were notified that their appointments for COVID-19 vaccines had been canceled or postponed.

Americans across the country are eager to receive their vaccines so they can safely return to the world they knew pre-COVID. But a slow national rollout has frustrated the process.

“We’re ready to go,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Health Department and the face of the city’s fight against the virus. “People want this vaccine, but we just aren’t getting enough doses to keep up.”

Supply and demand

The Louisiana Department of Health (LDOH) receives doses from the federal government and then is responsible for distributing them to qualified health care providers, including hospitals, clinics and pharmacies across the state. Those providers then administer the vaccines to patients.

“By far the biggest challenge is the small number of doses being made available to us [from the federal government],” said Mindy Faciane, public information officer for the LDOH. In Louisiana, there are 889,000 people in the tiers currently eligible to receive a COVID vaccine, which include health care workers and those at least 70 years old. As of Thursday, only 38% of that number had received their first vaccine dose, according to LDOH.

But that hasn’t stopped thousands of New Orleanians from trying to find coveted appointments for themselves and their loved ones. Entire Facebook groups, such as the 600-member “NOLA Vaccine Hunters,” are dedicated to crowdsourcing information on where the next available appointments might be.

Andi Robinson also used social media to reach out to friends asking for information on where she could get her 82-year-old grandmother an appointment. Robinson said her grandmother has been extremely cautious during the pandemic, avoiding the grocery store and listening to church services on the phone instead of going in person. She even asked family members to change their clothes upon entering the house during the virus’ early days.

“I was worried about her and what the virus could do to her because of her age,” Robinson said, “so as soon as the vaccine was made available, I wanted to get her one.”

She said it took more than a week of busy signals, frustrating computer searches and wait lists before Robinson was finally able to find an appointment for her grandmother at a hospital in February.

But she recently received a call from a local Walgreens pharmacy, where she was on a wait list, notifying her that a spot came available for her.

“And she got her first dose of the vaccination,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t as smooth as we hoped, but I feel like it could have been much worse.”

Being intentional about equity

“Obviously we need to make sure it’s not just the people with the most tech-savvy grandkids who are getting the vaccine,” said Dr. Avegno of the New Orleans Health Department.

Louisiana is one of the most racially diverse states in America. In New Orleans, for example, about 60% of the population is Black.

But the pandemic has not affected all demographics equally. African Americans account for three of every four coronavirus deaths in the city. Experts believe this is because of interrelated factors such as poverty and a disparity in access to affordable healthy food and health care compared with white residents.

“It’s our goal to find and protect the people in our community who are most susceptible to this virus,” Avegno said. “We can’t hope that they just magically find us.”

Gabrielle Perry, a clinical epidemiologist who works at a private health system in New Orleans, said that while troubling early data from around the United States has shown that African Americans are less likely to get vaccinated than their white counterparts, she has been encouraged by the work the city has done to reach Black residents.

“I think New Orleans is a guidepost for how community health can be used to instill public trust,” Perry said. “They’ve used television, deans from historically Black universities and other methods to reach the Black community.”

Avegno said that effort will only gear up in the city as more vaccines become available.

“We have a lot of work still to do, but if we have to go to every church in the city to convince our residents this vaccine is safe, then we’ll visit every church in the city,” she said.

Turning a corner

It hasn’t only been city and state governments that are making incredible efforts to get vaccines to Americans.

“Our health care providers are working so hard,” Avegno said. “You have pharmacies, for example, who are used to receiving a dozen calls an hour, who are now receiving 450. And then they find out with very little lead time whether or not they’re getting doses of vaccines to administer. If they are, that’s another huge effort to quickly get patients in the door on short notice.”

And if they find out they aren’t getting vaccine doses, that’s a massive effort, as well.

John DiMaggio and his wife, Daisy, for example, have owned Patio Drugs in a suburb of New Orleans for nearly 30 years. Over the years they’ve developed a loyal following of individual customers, as well as partnerships with larger facilities such as behavioral health organizations and retirement homes.

“We like to say that we’re large enough to serve you but small enough to know you!” he said.

So when it was announced that the federal government would begin sending vaccines to states, customers began reaching out to the DiMaggios hoping to schedule vaccinations.

“We’d request doses and we’d be told to keep checking the system for when we might get some,” he said, “but every time we checked, there weren’t any to give us.”

DiMaggio said he felt frustrated for his customers.

“We want them to be able to get vaccinated so they can go to their job and be safe.”

As January continued and they weren’t receiving doses, they decided to help their customers find other places to get the vaccine. Asked about whether it was hard to send business away, DiMaggio scoffed.

“My wife and I don’t think about this as business,” he said. “We’re trying to help our community beat this thing. That’s what this is about.”

DiMaggio knows a lot of pharmacists and health care professionals in the area, and he said that’s a feeling he believes they all share.

“We’re ready to make our community healthy. We have everything we need to do it except the vaccines. As soon as we get them, we’ll be ready to go.”

And in the last few days there are reasons to be optimistic. The DiMaggios received an email saying vaccines were being delivered to them in the next few days.

Ian Farrell, meanwhile, got a call to tell him he was being moved off a waiting list and into a vaccine appointment this upcoming Wednesday.

“As long as it doesn’t get canceled, I’ll be a happy guy,” he said. “And I’m cautiously hopeful. The Biden administration stressed a strong federal rollout of vaccines, and I’m crossing my fingers that that’s what we’re starting to see.”

Source: Voice of America

WHO Team Visits Wet Market Linked to First Coronavirus Cases

A team of World Health Organization scientists investigating the source of the coronavirus visited a wet market Sunday in Wuhan, China.

A cluster of cases were linked to the Huanan Seafood Market when the novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. Since then, the coronavirus has infected more than 102 million people worldwide and killed more than 2.2 million.

The scientists have already visited at least one of the hospitals in Wuhan that treated some of the first patients.

“Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialized in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan,” Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said on Twitter Saturday. “Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.”

The scientists want to know where the virus originated, in what animal, and how it made its way into humans, something that could take years to figure out.

The team is also planning to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology and laboratories at state facilities, such as the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, according to the Geneva-based WHO.

China recorded over 2,000 domestic cases of the virus in the month of January – the highest monthly total recorded since the end of March 2020, according to the National Health Commission.

The European Union announced Sunday that British company AstraZeneca had agreed to send 9 million more doses of the vaccine to EU countries.

AstraZeneca will also deliver the doses a week earlier than planned, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, calling the news a “step forward on vaccines.”

On the African continent, only a handful of countries have been able to begin vaccinating their populations. On Sunday, Ghana announced Sunday that it planned to acquire 17.6 million doses of the vaccine by this summer, with the first batches arriving by March.

“Our aim is to vaccinate the entire population, with an initial target of 20 million people,” President Nana Akufo-Addo said Sunday.

He also announced stricter measures against the virus, including banning large gatherings, as the country battles a second wave.

The Associated Press reports that Israel has agreed to transfer 5,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine to the Palestinians for front-line medical workers. Israel has been criticized for not providing vaccines to the Palestinians before but says it is not responsible for them.

The Australian city of Perth is on lockdown orders after a security guard at a quarantine facility tested positive for the coronavirus. Perth had not had a COVID-19 case in 10 months.

The lockdown starts Sunday evening and ends Friday evening, if no more cases are uncovered. People will only be allowed out for essentials, including shopping for groceries and medicine. Bars, gyms and entertainment venues will be closed.

Peru also instituted lockdowns on Sunday amid a new surge in cases, but the Associated Press reported that the regulations were largely ignored, with most markets in Lima crowded as usual.

Russia reported Sunday that there had been more than 18,000 new COVID-19 cases in the previous 24 hours.

The U.S. remains the country with the most cases at more than 26 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Sunday.

Data reported by the Associated Press and The New York Times has shown disparities between the racial makeup of the country and who is receiving the vaccine.

In North Carolina, Black people are just a scant 11% of the vaccine recipients even though they are 22% of the population and 26% of the health care workforce, the AP found.

In comparison, AP reported, “White people in North Carolina are 68% of the population and 82% of those vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Los Angeles County data has also revealed racial disparities in the coronavirus pandemic. The mostly Latino neighborhood of Pacoima, the Times said, “has one of the highest case rates in the nation … roughly five times the rate of COVID-19 cases as much richer and whiter Santa Monica.”

Source: Voice of America