By Brad Brooks
PONCHATOULA, La. (Reuters) – The crowd inside Floyd’s Family Pharmacy was abuzz with an agitated energy.
Whether arriving for scheduled COVID vaccines or testing, people were motivated in part by fear of the Delta variant taking hold across the country as well as in this stately town surrounded by lush forests, strawberry fields and swamps an hour north of New Orleans.
Head pharmacist Floyd Talley was at the center of the action, one minute donning full protective gear to carry out nasal swabs in the parking lot. The next, he was back in his white jacket, fielding questions from moms about possible COVID symptoms their children displayed.
“There is a huge uptick in the request for vaccines,” Talley said. “We’re back almost to how we were when the vaccine first came out.”
Those lining up for jabs say many reasons had made them reluctant before, including questions about approval by the Food and Drug Administration and the loss of a sense of urgency when cases earlier started to fall. Other areas with low rates of vaccination – Louisiana has one of the lowest in the country – would be wise to recognize that motives can be mixed, doctors here said, and find innovative ways to address concerns.
Nobody in Ponchatoula is even considering a vaccine mandate – that would likely lead to a counterproductive backlash in this deeply conservative patch of a deeply red state.
Instead, local leaders have made it less convenient to pass up vaccination with such measures as a recent schools’ directive that unvaccinated teachers and students exposed to the virus would be forced to quarantine, with teachers not receiving any extra sick days as they did last year.
Louisiana State University said unvaccinated students would have to provide monthly proof of a negative coronavirus test. Pharmacist Talley said the prospect of that regular inconvenience prompted a rush of college kids to start coming for the vaccine.
While none of these measures is as straightforward and forceful as doctors in the area might want, they say they are beginning to have an impact.
Tangipahoa Parish, where Ponchatoula is located, has seen four straight weeks of double-digit percent gains in the number of people being vaccinated. With just 30.4% of its population fully vaccinated, it has a long way to go.
STEADFAST AGAINST THE SHOT
Penny Perrin was part of the crowd inside Floyd’s recently.
She said the Delta variant definitely got her attention, but it was the idea of having her daughter Gracie, 13, and son Jacob, 15, forced into extended quarantines and missing long stretches of school if exposed that prompted her to bring the kids in.
“The vaccinated can still get sick, though I know a lot less. And this shot was developed so fast that we feel like guinea pigs,” Perrin said. “But they may get sick and miss school if they don’t have the shot. I feel like I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. But we’re getting it.”
While COVID-19 vaccines were developed at record pace, the process was based on decades of research and involved scientists all over the world.
Just up the road from Ponchatoula in Hammond, an exhausted Dr. Robert Peltier, North Oaks Health System’s chief medical officer, lamented the long and mostly futile fight to convince his fellow “famously steadfast” Louisiana natives to get vaccinated.
He said shaming or labeling rural conservatives as ignorant was ineffectual, and described complacency and timing as key factors too easily disregarded. When the vaccines first came out, many people were not eligible. By the time they were, the threat posed by COVID did not seem as dire.
“The masks mandates went away. People were able to go on vacations. So everybody thought this was over,” Peltier said. “Understandably and logically, a percentage of our population thought, ‘I didn’t get COVID before. I didn’t get a vaccine before. Everything is opening up. Why do I need to get a vaccine now?'”
The fight has been in-house at North Oaks, the largest healthcare provider in Tangipahoa Parish. A week ago the number of North Oaks staff who were vaccinated stood at just 43%. By Friday that number had shot up to nearly 64%.
Hailey Warner, 20, was in North Oaks on Thursday getting a COVID test.
“My mom had COVID recently, and I was around her, so that brought me in,” she said.
Warner said she was not yet vaccinated, in part out of fear it might affect her fertility. The CDC has repeatedly advised that such concerns are not backed by scientific evidence, but doctors in this part of Louisiana say they have heard many young women citing misinformation they have seen on social media linking the vaccines to infertility.
Warner also said she was concerned by the lack of full FDA approval.
Dana Antoon, who owns eight pharmacies in the Ponchatoula area, said the fact that it has taken longer than expected for COVID vaccines to receive full FDA approval, as opposed to being authorized for emergency use, has sown far more mistrust than she thinks leaders understand.
“I strongly believe that once they get full FDA approval, we’ll see a big increase in vaccination demand,” she said.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Editing by Donna Bryson and Daniel Wallis)