Shots of free booze didn’t do it.
A million-dollar lottery didn’t do it.
COVID-19 vaccination rates have tripled in the vaccine-hesitant state of Louisiana over the past month. The main reason, experts say, is not the incentives offered across the state. It is the alarming surge of the delta virus variant and its toll on younger patients.
Louisiana has been among the least-vaccinated states in the nation. But the number of people getting their shots has risen sharply in recent weeks as the delta variant has driven a sevenfold explosion in cases.
The state now has the nation’s highest seven-day average case rate by population and has seen “an impressive and terrifying increase in the number of cases that require hospitalization,” said infectious diseases chief Julio Figueroa at Louisiana State University School of Medicine.
“There’s no doubt that fear motivates more than a lot of incentives,” Figueroa told VOA. “And I can tell you that there is a lot to be anxious about with this surge.”
'We’re seeing children'
The number of Louisianans newly hospitalized with COVID-19 each week grew by more than sixfold over the past month, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Admissions are now at the highest level in a year, and Figueroa said they are nearing where they were in early 2020, when Louisiana was among the first states hit with a major COVID-19 outbreak. Many institutions are once again canceling elective surgeries to focus care on COVID-19 patients.
“We’re clearly moving in a very bad direction here,” said Thomas LaVeist, dean of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
And it is no longer just the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions who end up in the hospital. Hospitalization rates in Louisiana are above their previous peaks for every age group below 70. For most age groups below 60, rates are double or more.
“We’re seeing younger people. We’re seeing people with fewer or no preexisting conditions. We're seeing children,” Figueroa said.
More than 90% of those hospitalized had not been vaccinated. Vaccines continue to protect against severe illness and death.
The gravity of the situation is starting to get more people’s attention.
“The public health message of trying to get vaccination out there, until the surge, really was falling on deaf ears,” Figueroa added.
Vaccination rates started falling in mid-April.
The Louisiana Restaurant Association ran a “Shot for a Shot” campaign in June, giving away a free drink to people who got vaccinated.
The state started a “Shot at a Million” lottery late that month. The million-dollar grand prize winner will be announced this Friday.
But vaccination rates bottomed out anyway. By early July, the state was averaging about 5,000 shots per day. Just under half of the adult population had received at least one dose.
With delta surging, the state now tops 15,000 shots per day. The percentage of adults who have received at least one dose has risen to 55%.
“That is a very good outcome of this very terrible surge,” Figueroa said.
There is still a long way to go. Nationally, more than 70% of adults have received at least one vaccine dose.
Some employers are starting to require their workers to get vaccinated. Tulane’s Dean LaVeist said he has written to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, asking him to issue a statewide vaccine mandate.
“I think more governors need to do it, and hopefully we’ll do it,” he said.
A vaccine mandate would be a contentious proposition in Louisiana, where trust in government is generally low and vaccine hesitancy and outright resistance is widespread.
However, “there’s a lot of frustration” with unvaccinated people, “especially (among) people who rushed out and got the vaccine as soon as they were eligible,” LaVeist said, as they realize their lives are still being constrained because of people who have not gotten vaccinated.
Some of that frustration is misplaced, Figueroa said.
The unvaccinated patients he has seen are “not just people who are completely contrary” and say they will never get the vaccine, he noted. Misinformation about vaccine side effects is widespread, especially on social media. Access is still an issue for some workers whose employers do not offer them paid sick leave to get vaccinated.
The recent increase in people seeking shots is promising sign, LaVeist said.
“The only way that we’re going to get out of this situation is with people getting vaccinated,” he added. “And that has begun to happen here in Louisiana. That's positive.”