From April 2020, New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno in a homemade protective mask. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said on Tuesday that mass COVID-19 vaccination drives are likely to begin in the city as soon as mid-March. Speaking at a meeting of the City Council’s Community Development Committee, Avegno said that large-scale vaccinations sites or events have been held back so far because of supply issues, which she attributed to a “bumpy” federal rollout.

“There is currently not enough supply being sent to the states to meet the demand,” she said, a point that has been repeated by officials with the Louisiana Department of Health.

Referring to mass vaccination events taking place in other states, Avegno told council members that “the mass drives that are happening now are really splashy, but they don’t have a lot of supply. People wait a really long time, and then they don’t get in.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. John Bel Edwards is scheduled to announce details of one of the state’s first mass vaccination sites at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.

Still, Avegno said, New Orleans “leads the state in terms of people vaccinated.” 10.6 percent of people in LDH’s Region 1, which encompasses Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, have received first doses. That’s slightly higher than the statewide 9.5 percent.

The New Orleans area is also a regional medical hub, and likely has a higher proportion of frontline medical workers, who were eligible for early doses, than many other parishes. However, Avegno said that vaccinations have lagged among nursing home staff specifically. 

Last week, LDH expanded vaccine eligibility to include people 65 and older, roughly 275,000 more people. The department also extended eligibility to a much smaller group of poll workers, some law enforcement, and core emergency response command, including the governor. But that decision meant that essential workers who were next in line, including grocery store employees and teachers, will have a longer wait.

Avegno said that it was likely that vaccinations would begin for those groups in March, after a single-dose COVID vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson may be available, pending an emergency use authorization from the FDA.

The pharmaceutical company recently released positive preliminary results from its Phase 3 trial, and the FDA plans to review the results, and likely approve the shot, in the last week of February.

“That will help us have the mass vaccination drives that we want,” Avegno told the council.

N.O. Health Department builds out city-run distribution channels

In the meantime, the city has begun to set up its own vaccine distribution channels.

Over the weekend, the New Orleans Health Department vaccinated seniors at the Central City Senior Center. Seniors were asked to schedule appointments for that drive by calling 311.

Since late January, the city has been using 311 to schedule vaccine appointments at city vaccination sites.

“We are building a citywide wait list,” Avegno said, although it’s only for people who are currently eligible for vaccinations. “As we get doses, we’ll be able to go off of that wait list and prioritize those that have signed up for us.”

She said that the city plans to have another vaccination event in the Lower 9th Ward later this week, as well as “a smaller drive-through” in the coming weeks. Those plans are still tentative, however.

“We need to confirm we’re actually getting the doses in,” Avegno said.

Sarah Babcock, the director of healthy environments and communications at the New Orleans Health Department, told The Lens in a later interview that the city began receiving doses for the general public two and a half weeks ago. The city received 300 the first week, and 200 the next, although it was able to use more than that because of “angel doses” left over in vials.

The city distributed more than 100 doses at the Central City Senior Center, she said.

At the upcoming Lower 9th distribution site, half the appointments will be filled by people on the wait list, while the other half were reserved for people referred by community partners, like neighborhood associations and churches. Babcock said that pattern is likely to continue for subsequent city vaccination sites.

The city will also return to the neighborhood in several weeks to distribute booster shots.

As of Saturday, the New Orleans Health Department had distributed 550 vaccines, including through the Healthcare for the Homeless Program, the Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly, and residents of HANO properties, according to a city press release.

New Orleans Emergency Medical Services also began distributing doses to people on its homebound registry over the weekend. A spokesperson for NOEMS did not immediately respond to questions about that program.

In response to a question from Councilmember Jay Banks, Avegno said that the city was hesitant about using walk up sites, which it has relied on heavily for equitable COVID testing. “That’s gone really badly in a lot of other places, because you have seniors standing outside for hours and hours,” she said.

Tulane University has also partnered with the city, and provided roughly 50 vaccination slots per day to the public through 311. However, those slots have filled through mid-March, and Avegno said that scheduling has paused until future supply is confirmed.

“We’ve also created this imminent standby list,” Avegno said, for eligible people who would be available to receive a spare dose. “We’ve got a list of folks who’ve said, yes, if you call me at 1 o’clock on a Tuesday, I’ll be there.”

Babcock explained that people signed up for the standby list through 311 as well. If a person is put onto the wait list, “you have an option to check that you want to be part of the list.”

The standby list was used to vaccinate about 10 people over the weekend during the city’s distribution. But the plan is to give other vaccine providers in Orleans Parish access to the list. Currently, four local pharmacies and clinics have signed up.

“We expect that to increase over the next few weeks. We’ve heard from most providers that they are interested, now we just need to work through the logistics,” Babcock said.

Because of Tulane’s supply, Babcock said, the city was recently able to enroll most of the existing wait list. She wasn’t able to say how many people were currently on it, but said that “it’s not very many people at this point.”

This story has been updated to include material from a Tuesday afternoon interview with New Orleans Health Department employee Sarah Babcock.