From December 2020, Chelsea Buchanan, Emergency Department RN at Ochsner Medical Center, Jefferson Highway, receives her COVID-19 vaccination. (Photo courtesy of Ochsner Health)

Starting Tuesday, Louisiana is expanding COVID-19 vaccine eligibility criteria to cover anyone over the age of 16 who has a high-risk medical condition..

“We came to this decision after hearing from our providers over the weekend that there is a little slack in our appointment,” Gov. John Bel Edwards explained.

He also said that the decision was based on recent statewide COVID indicators, which have stabilized since the winter surge. “We’ve stopped improving, and in every previous instance where that has happened, there was another surge,” Edwards said. “We don’t want there to be another surge.

Last night, the Louisiana Department of Health sent a document detailing the expansion was released to vaccine providers, and the change takes place “effective immediately,” Edwards said.

“Our goal is to not have any vaccine sitting on a shelf any longer than necessary,” he said.

The eligible medical conditions are defined by the CDC, and include asthma, cancer, heart conditions, lung diseases, diabetes, and compromised immune systems. People who are pregnant, smoke, or have a BMI over 25 are also eligible.

Under the new rules, qualifying people aged 18 and older are eligible for all three vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Those over 16 but under 18 can only be given the Pfizer vaccine. State officials have previously said that vaccine recipients can’t expect to choose which drug they get, so it’s not clear how an eligible 16 or 17-year-old would ensure they got the right dose.

Last month, the state expanded eligibility criteria to cover K-12 teachers and people 55 to 65 with pre-existing conditions, along with several narrower categories, adding more than 400,000 people to the eligible pool, for a total of about 1.7 million.

The new eligibility dramatically expands the number of people eligible in the state. The change to BMI above 25 appears especially significant. Previous guidelines had only included people who had a BMI above 30. According to a New Orleans Health Department report, as of 2010, 64 percent of adults in the city would meet the criteria.

State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said that he couldn’t estimate the total number of people in the new categories.

“I wouldn’t even venture to put a number to it,” he said, because the state doesn’t know how many people fit into multiple eligible groups.

But the new criteria doesn’t apply to groups of essential workers that the state has previously said it would prioritize for vaccines.

Those include public transit workers, agricultural workers, mail carriers, and grocery store employees. All of those professions were listed as high priority in early January, when vaccines first became available to non-medical professionals.

Other professions on the list, including teachers, home health care professionals, and even clergy, have become eligible since then.

“I do expect to get those [occupations] at some point,” said Edwards. “In the meantime, there will be people all across Louisiana, in every type of occupation who are going to be eligible for the vaccine. And so it’ll be eligible for those who most need it, regardless of where they work.”

But one representative for local transit workers said she was disappointed by the decision.

“We have had 3 drivers die, we had 80 employees get sick,” said Valerie Jefferson, the president of the local chapter of Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents RTA employees. “This is vital to us.”

About 1,000 RTA employees and contractors would be eligible under the new guidelines. About 80 paratransit operators are already eligible, and have begun receiving doses through the city. An RTA spokesperson said that the agency was in conversations with local hospitals and the New Orleans Health Department to set up vaccinations once employees were eligible.

Concerns among drivers have only grown, Jefferson said, as RTA has begun providing free shuttles to the mass vaccination site at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. “The drivers are very nervous–we’re taking passengers to the Convention Center, but we can’t get it.”

“I love the governor,” Jefferson said, “But we’re going to talk to him, how very important transit employees across Louisiana are. We are vulnerable, we are front liners.”

As of Monday, more than 1.2 million doses had been administered in the state. Of those, 784,241 have had one of two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. And 448,730 are fully vaccinated, having received both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.  In LDH’s Region 1, which includes Orleans Parish, about 11 percent of people have been fully vaccinated.

Statewide, 63 percent of those who have begun vaccination are white, and 25 percent are Black. The state’s Black population is about 32 percent. In Orleans Parish, about 44 percent of those who’ve received a first dose are Black, and 44 percent are white. Orleans Parish is about 60 percent Black overall.

Tuesday marked one year since Louisiana confirmed its first COVID-19 infection. Since then, the state has recorded nearly 375,000 cases. (Nearly 62,000 additional cases are considered probable COVID-19 infections as a result of a positive antigen test that has not been confirmed with a PCR test.) At least 9,050 people in the state have died as a result of complications from the disease, and 719 more are considered probable COVID-19 deaths.