More than half of Louisiana’s COVID deaths since early 2021 could have been prevented if more people had been vaccinated, according to a new analysis.
If demand had remained high and all adults got inoculated, 5,182 deaths would have been prevented, according to the analysis from Brown University and Microsoft AI Health. In that time period, 9,760 people have died of the virus in Louisiana.
The data represent a what-might-have-been situation as the U.S. surpasses over a million COVID fatalities and Louisiana’s dead stands at 14,750.
“It creates an alternative future, a scenario of what things could have looked like had more people continued to show up and gotten their vaccines,” said Stefanie Friedhoff, a professor at the Brown School of Public Health and an author of the analysis.
In Louisiana, vaccines were first administered in December 2020. People who were desperate for the shots but did not yet qualify waited around in pharmacies for a precious extra dose or scoured social media posts for tips on how to get a jab. Some Louisiana residents drove to Mississippi, where requirements were looser.
At its peak, Louisiana was giving out a weekly average of 40,490 doses in mid-March. But demand was short-lived. It was spurred later by the delta and omicron surges in August and the winter of 2021, but has trickled off since.
The analysis imagined what would have happened if that initial demand kept up until Louisiana adults were 85%, 90% and 100% vaccinated. Using the statistical likelihood of death for unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, researchers found that reaching a 90% vaccination rate at the peak demand rate would have resulted in 4,208 fewer deaths. Even 85% coverage would have decreased deaths by 3,641.
Instead, Louisiana’s vaccination rate sits at 54%, one of the lowest in the nation. That’s not for lack of effort. Health officials have tried a number of tactics, from giving away a million dollars to handing out gift cards and free food and drinks.
“Louisiana had fantastic campaigns early on,” said Friedhoff, adding that states with disaster experience like Louisiana did relatively well at the beginning, because they knew how to quickly deploy teams.
But that momentum did not last, especially as the vaccines became politicized and there were failures in managing the public's expectations of the shot, which was good at preventing severe outcomes but not tested for preventing infection.
“I think it’s a shame,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer. “There's this tendency to say, well, if it's not 100% effective 100% of the time, then it's worthless, and efforts like this show how wrong that is.”
However, Louisiana is not as high on the list of lives that might have been saved as some other states with better vaccination rates. Although the state ranks 4th for least-vaccinated states, behind only Wyoming, Alabama and Mississippi, it’s 19th for the number of preventable deaths. That’s in part because many of the deaths in Louisiana happened early in the pandemic, and because the state does have better vaccine coverage for people over 65 who are most at risk, though it still falls in the bottom 10 states.
Although the analysis did not quantify why some regions have lower vaccination rates, it was hard to ignore how closely preventable deaths aligned with conservative political leanings a map of the U.S.
“It looks like an electoral map,” said co-author Dr. Tom Tsai, a surgeon and professor at Harvard School of Public Health. Much of that boils down to whether someone trusts science or health officials, said Tsai.
“That speaks to how important it is among our political leaders and policy makers to provide the information and the context for individuals to rely on trusted sources of information like their doctors,” said Tsai.
Kanter said disinformation about the vaccine is the greatest obstacle now.
“We still face a robust disinformation campaign,” said Kanter. “There is clearly political gain felt by diminishing the value of vaccines. When you look at numbers like 5,000 avoidable deaths, it really puts that in perspective.”
On Monday, Louisiana lawmakers advanced a bill that would prohibit discrimination over vaccination status. Earlier this month, multiple bills that would stymy a school’s ability handle vaccinations moved forward.