BATON ROUGE, La. (AP/KTAL) – 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.

In fact, Edwards said, the 45 new deaths reported Wednesday were the highest number of deaths reported in a single day since Sept. 6, when 58 deaths were reported.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has doubled since the beginning of November, starting out with just over 600 and ending the month with more than 1,200. The governor also said the state is seeing an increased trend in outbreaks caused by gatherings in spite of efforts to encourage people to take precuations.

As of Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health was reporting a total of 241,335 confirmed and probable cases statewide and 6,501 deaths. There were 1,288 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus around the state, with 137 on ventilators.

“It’s really the last couple of weeks that the trajectory has been really concerning,” Edwards said, expressing concern that the Thanksgiving holiday will only make things worse.

“I have to believe there were individuals traveled when shouldn’t have and too many folks outside immediate households getting today. I pray that I’m wrong,” adding that the “worst-case scenario is to have this current surge and have superimposed on that another surge because of Thanksgiving.”

It typically takes about ten days from exposure before testing can confirm a coronavirus case, “so we’re gonna be a bit anxious as we move forward,” Edwards said. Sunday will be ten days from Thanksgiving.

Giroir said warned that the upward trend in hospitalizations from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus “has the potential to overwhelm the hospital system.”

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.

Giroir offered support Wednesday for the coronavirus restrictions implemented by Gov. Edwards in Louisiana.

“You are taking the right steps right now because we’re at a very dangerous and critical point in the pandemic,” Giroir said, emphasizing the importance of continuing to take mitigation measures until the vaccines are widely available.

A member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Giroir has spent the last few months warning that the country’s situation is “tenuous” but that Americans can indeed control the virus by practicing what he calls the “3W’s” — watching your distance from others, wearing a mask and frequently washing your hands.

About 10% of Louisianans have been confirmed with COVID-19 so far, but the governor said, “it’s nowhere near enough to approach herd immunity. We need a vaccine to do that.”

Edwards said that he has 100% confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccines currently awaiting approval. Right now, it is not possible to know the exact amount of how many doses the state will receive but said that the state should get around 40,000 from Pfizer the first week following approval and then another roughly 40,000 the second week. Hospitals will be administering the vaccines because they have facilities for cold-storage.

In the meantime, the governor said the state needs to get hospitalizations under control and remain diligent in taking steps to slow the spread.

“We have to double down on the things we know work to get this under control.”

Testing also continues to be a top priority. The state received a nearly a million rapid-result antigen tests to distribute by need around the state, with about 400,000 of them going directly to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and HBCUs.

“So we’re really surging those tests around the state to really detect those early spreaders.
remember 50, 60, 70, 80% of people can be asymptomatic, still have the virus, and still spread it.”

Adm. Girior also noted newly revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines shortening the recommended length of quarantine after exposure to someone who is positive for COVID-19.

The updated guidelines will allow people who have come in contact to someone infected with the virus to resume normal activity after 10 days, or 7 days if they receive a negative test result. That’s down from the 14-day period recommended since the onset of the pandemic.

“So this is really very good news. We would have liked to do it earlier, but you want to be sure about these things, you can’t rush these. This is an important recommendation. So, even though we’re surging with the number of cases, we do feel it is absolutely safe for that ten-day quarantine or seven-day with a test. This helps people get back to school, back to work, back to doing the things they need to do on a daily basis.”