Within an hour of Crescent City Pharmacy's Monday morning opening, all slots for available vaccines had been filled. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

The phone in Crescent City Pharmacy in Central City has been ringing nonstop since Monday morning. In fact, said Michelle Mahaffey, the cashier working the front desk, it started ringing on Saturday as New Orleanians got the news that COVID-19 vaccines would soon become more widely available to some in the general public.

On Monday, the Louisiana Department of Health announced that the location would be one of 107 pharmacies across the state that would each receive about 100 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for those who fit the state’s newest set of vaccination criteria. Called Phase 1B Tier 1, the group that includes an expanded list of healthcare workers and those over 70.

Those seeking shots were asked to call pharmacies to schedule an appointment for later in the week, rather than walking up in person. Within an hour of Crescent City Pharmacy’s Monday morning opening, said Mahaffey, all the slots were filled. Crescent City began signing callers up for a waitlist to receive shots in the next shipment.

At Broad Avenue Pharmacy in the Seventh Ward, the situation was similar: Chi Tran, the pharmacist, said that she’d received a shipment of doses Monday morning, and had filled up her appointments in an hour. The pharmacy laid out a yellow legal pad on a table where people could add their names and numbers to a wait list.

As she filled prescriptions in the front of the store, her colleague answered a never ending stream of calls.

“The phone’s been ringing since I got here, and it’s just the two of us working today,” she said.

Because Broad Avenue has already received its doses, it’s begun making appointments to administer the shots beginning Tuesday. Only one person will be allowed in the building at a time, said Tran. The shot only takes seconds, but people will be asked to wait for 15 minutes to monitor for allergic reactions, and 30 if they have a history of allergies.

If no one has allergies, she said, they’ll be able to get through about 20 people a day, meaning that using all 100 of the first doses will take at least five days.

At the same time, she said, recipients will make an appointment for a follow up dose in three weeks, which she said had “already been allocated to [the pharmacy.]” However, she didn’t know when she’d receive more doses to distribute to new people.

Crescent City Pharmacy hadn’t received its shipment yet by late afternoon Monday, but it was expected to come in by the evening. Though it had filled up a list of about 100 people for vaccinations, it couldn’t begin scheduling the shots until the shipment arrived, said pharmacy manager Lishunda Franklin. She said that the pharmacy also plans to send people home with reminders about follow up doses.

A sign posted inside Crescent City Pharmacy. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allocated about 260,000 first doses of vaccine to Louisiana so far: 131,000 made by Pfizer, and 134,000 made by Moderna. As of late last week, LDH reported that 45,289 of those doses had been administered. LDH data updates on Tuesday and Thursday, and lags behind actual vaccinations because of delays in paperwork filing.

The first priority group for vaccines, called Phase 1A, were frontline healthcare workers and those working or living in long-term care facilities like nursing homes. The state began distributing vaccines to those groups on Dec. 14, prioritizing healthcare workers first, and sending doses the next week to long-term care facilities.

The state estimates that about 250,000 people were included in Phase 1A: 125,000 to 135,000 health care workers and 75,000 to 85,000 affiliated with long-term care. That means that, at least according to the CDC, Louisiana has now been allocated more than enough doses to cover that first priority group.

This next priority group is nearly three times larger. That group, called Phase 1B Tier 1, includes anyone over 70, and those working in a wider range of healthcare and medical professions, including home healthcare workers, renal care patients and workers, behavioral specialists, and dental clinicians. The state estimates that 640,000 Louisianans fit in those categories.

This Tier 1 group targets some essential workers and especially those who are at high risk of hospitalization and death of COVID. According to the CDC, the risk of death from COVID is 220 times higher for those 75 to 84 than in those 18 to 29. It’s 630 times higher for those older than 85.

As of early this week, the state has allocated 10,500 Moderna vaccines to the 107 pharmacies serving the Phase 1B population, enough for about 1.6 percent of the Phase 1B Tier 1 population. Every pharmacy received about 100 doses.

And those 640,000 eligible Louisianans aren’t even all of Phase 1B. A second tier will become eligible for vaccination in following weeks. That tier will include pharmacists, governmental response personnel, judges, National Guard soldiers not responding to COVID, military personnel, corrections officers, homeless shelter staff, school and daycare workers, food processing and agriculture workers, postal workers, public transit employees, grocery store workers, “and other deemed frontline essential workers,” according to an LDH press release.

Clogged phones

By midmorning Monday, the phone lines for all New Orleans pharmacies administering the vaccine returned a busy signal or were not answered. And LDH’s portal to look up local pharmacies briefly crashed after the list was first posted.

In the meantime, people frustrated with clogged phone lines had begun coming to the pharmacies to sign up for appointments.

Toto Robinson, 72, showed up to Broad Avenue Pharmacy Monday after calling “20 times.” He called two other pharmacies, he said, but hadn’t gotten a response.

At Crescent City Pharmacy, Patrick and Betsy Dowling said that they’d heard that vaccines would be available after reading the news over the weekend. Monday morning, they’d tried to figure out which pharmacies to contact, and how to sign up.

“I tried all morning, but at 85 years old,” Patrick Dowling said, “I tell people I speak computer about as well as I speak Mandarin.”

Their daughter ended up sending them a copy of a list of what Patrick Dowling described as all the pharmacies in Louisiana. Patrick had noted which ones to try with a red pencil. He’d called the three closest to their house, but couldn’t get through. The two of them had driven to Crescent City Pharmacy to see if they could sign up in person, and added their names to the waiting list.

Elisa Muñoz, the executive director of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, which has been working to enroll seniors in SNAP benefits during the pandemic, said that digital access — for information about things like testing and emergency benefits — has been an issue for seniors all year.

Patrick and Betsy Dowling came to Crescent City Pharmacy after being unable to get through to any pharmacy over the phone. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

“[They’re] not seeing what’s available, because most communications have been online, through press releases, emails, and twitter. I just think about my grandmother. If she has a question for the pharmacist, she calls the pharmacy or just shows up there. We’re really seeing that digital divide right now.”

“That’s who’s been calling,” said Mahaffey. “If they call, call, call, and it’s busy, they’ll come in.” In spite of that, she said, “those are the people that I see that are excited. They’re willing to wait.”

Robinson, who had looked for a vaccine at the Broad Ave Pharmacy, said that he felt lucky to have made it this far without testing positive.

Still, he said, he’d hesitated to get the shot at first.

“I didn’t want to get a flu vaccine,” he said. But, after watching healthcare workers and others get vaccines “all over the TV,” he decided, “I’m game to try.”

“I don’t want to get it, and I don’t want to spread it,” he said.

It’s not that he was disappointed not to receive it, he said, but that he wanted to travel, see his family, and have a party. He was married on December 28, he said, and so far his honeymoon has been spent indoors.

Patrick Dowling at Crescent City Pharmacy said something similar.

“It feels like for us, this is almost over. This has been a disaster.” He sees a few people every week in his work as a psychiatrist, and “if I get it, I’m a dead man.”

But it’s likely that more vaccines will become available to Phase 1B populations soon. Monday, New Orleans East Hospital announced that it would begin vaccinating Phase 1B populations on Wednesday. Those interested were asked to call 504-592-6628 to make an appointment.

And on Tuesday morning, LDH announced that any hospital systems that had excess doses on hand could begin distributing them to Phase 1B groups, “in light of a busy but successful first day of vaccine distribution to pharmacies,” according to the press release.

“The response has been overwhelming,” said Aziza Landrum, the hospital’s marketing and community relations manager. “We are booked for the first appointment slots we had, but we do have a waiting list, so as soon as we know we’ll have more doses on hand, we’ll start scheduling again.”

She said that New Orleans East had been allocated Pfizer doses specifically to distribute in Phase 1B, separate from allocations for Phase 1A healthcare workers. Landrum did not know what proportion of the hospital’s 1A staff had received first doses, but said that second doses were beginning to be administered this week.