Analysis: Louisiana officials urge embrace of virus vaccine

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – With a coronavirus vaccine expected to be widely available within months, Louisiana’s governor and public health leaders are looking ahead to the latest pandemic challenge: persuading people to willingly get vaccinated.

Louisiana’s health department is planning a widespread marketing and community outreach effort, Gov. John Bel Edwards regularly talks of his trust in the drugs’ safety and officials describe being willing and ready to receive the vaccine when it’s available.

But like everything else involving the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, reaching the levels of vaccination that health experts say is needed to achieve herd immunity – when enough people have protection from the disease to stop its spread – will be tricky.

Vaccination efforts will run into worries about potential side effects and risk, disinterest from people who don’t believe the coronavirus is as dangerous as health officials say it is and outright resistance from COVID-19 deniers and conspiracy theorists. They’ll encounter distrust from Black communities who can point to historic examples of medical experimentation and abuse.

Concerns about vaccine refusals are nationwide, and federal and state health leaders seem to understand the problems they face getting some people to welcome the shot, based on the messaging they’ve already started.

When Adm. Brett Giroir visited Louisiana on Wednesday, the federal assistant health secretary who oversees U.S. testing operations for the Trump administration tried to alleviate fears about the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Those two vaccines appear on track to receive authorization for use from the Food and Drug Administration this month.

“I can assure you that when the vaccine is authorized … that the American people can be confident in its safety and efficacy, and I tell you when it’s my turn in line, I will certainly be there,” Giroir said.

Louisiana’s plans for distributing a coronavirus vaccine prioritize hospital employees and those who live and work in nursing homes for the first available doses, expected to be distributed this month. The broader outline of who should be first in line for later rounds remains to be settled.

Widespread vaccine availability isn’t expected until mid-2021 or later. Each person must receive two doses three to four weeks apart for the vaccine to work correctly.

That gives Louisiana – and other states – time to build up acceptance of the coronavirus vaccine, hoping that the earliest rounds of immunization offer few adverse effects and that will reassure others to line up for shots.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor, said he believes skeptical people will become more comfortable as they know others who have received the vaccine.

“I tend to think that once the nurse who’s been vaccinated says to her friend at the Cub Scout meeting, ‘Oh, I took the vaccine. Don’t worry. My arm was sore, but it’s over, and now I’m much more comfortable that I’m not bringing infection home to my family,’ she will reassure those other moms and dads who will then reassure their parents and their children,” Cassidy said Tuesday in a call with reporters.

And the Republican added: “If it’s indicated for me, I will take it.”

Many prominent people are offering similar encouragement. Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have said they would publicly take a coronavirus vaccine when it’s available in hopes of persuading others to do the same.

The Louisiana Department of Health plans a significant marketing campaign, on social media, on radio, in newspapers, on billboards and in TV spots to let people know the vaccine is coming and try to build confidence. Early digital and social media ads could begin next week.

But the effort will go beyond traditional advertising. It will involve a grassroots campaign engaging leaders trusted in local communities to also help share information and encouragement about the vaccine.

“I have every confidence it is safe and effective, but that confidence that I have doesn’t immediately translate to somebody else, and we understand that,” Edwards said.’

The Democratic governor said his messaging would focus on the thousands of people who have been in the vaccine’s ongoing clinical trials and the safety steps involved in the process.

“They need to know that it’s been tested in people who look like them and it’s been found to be effective and safe, and then you have to have people who look like them spreading that message as well,” Edwards said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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