Ochsner to start distributing COVID vaccine next week

Angel Albring | BIZ. Magazine

Officials with Ochsner Health announced Friday that they expect to begin distributing more than 9,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine next week to Ochsner employees who are at the highest risk of exposure to the virus.

The vaccine will be received and stored in “ultra cold” freezers at facilities in New Orleans, Lafayette and Shreveport for distribution to Ochsner facilities in the state. The vaccine can be refrigerated for five days after being removed from the ultra cold freezers, officials said at the online news conference. It can also be thawed in 30 minutes, directly from the ultra cold freezers, for immediate use. 

“We hope to do vaccinations immediately after we receive the vaccine,” said Debbie Simonson, Vice President for Pharmacy Services.


Ochsner is to receive the 9,375 doses on Sunday or Monday, Simonson said, with more shipments expected in the coming weeks. The timing of the shipment is dependent on emergency use authorization from the The Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to be granted on Friday or Saturday. Once the vaccine is approved, the federal government will ship it out within 24 hours.

Of those doses, 5,125 wll go to the Jefferson Highway campus in New Orleans, 2,975 will be sent to Lafayette, and 1,325 will go to Shreveport. The doses sent to Shreveport will be distributed across all of North Louisiana. 

Ochsner is Louisiana’s largest non-profit, academic healthcare system, and it owns, manages and is affiliated with 40 hospitals and specialty hospitals, and more than 100 health centers and urgent care centers in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi. The healthcare system has more than 26,000 employees. 

Vaccines will first be made available to employees on a tier system. 

“We have tiers of employees and what we’ve tried to do is prioritize our employees based on their risk factors,” said Katherine Baumgarten, System Medical Director of Hospital Quality at Ochsner Health. “They could be a dietary person, an environmental service person, but if they work on the COVID unit, we have prioritized them to receive the vaccine first with our first shipment.”

Emergency room and urgent care facility workers will also be in that tier, Baumgarten said. 

Ochsner does not currently plan to require employees to be vaccinated, although it is being encouraged, said Dr. Robert Hart, Ochsner’s Chief Medical Officer.

“We are having lots of conversations about how important it is for all of us,” Hart said, adding that getting as many people vaccinated as possible in the coming weeks and months is crucial to achieving “herd immunity.”

“We have had some people express that they plan to wait,” Hart said. “Waiting means more people in the hospital, more people dying, more people getting the disease.”

In July, Ochsner announced its plans to participate as a study site for COVID-19 vaccines. It was one of 120 locations across the world to be a part of the Phase 2/3 study sponsored by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE. Up to 30,000 participants were enrolled across all locations.

Dr. Leonardo Seoane, Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer for Ochsner Health, said that Louisiana “had the highest percentage of African American participants than any other state for the trial.”

He said they were in the forefront for bringing to light how African American and Hispanic communities were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

Seoane said that, as a Cuban American, he planned to film himself being vaccinated and sharing his experience with that in English and Spanish to reach a larger audience and stress the importance of being vaccinated. 

“The only way we get out of this is to develop herd immunity and we do that with the vaccination,” he said. 

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses given 28 days apart. The vaccine has shown a 95 percent efficacy rate, Simonson. She said that the highest efficacy was reached seven days after receiving the second round of the vaccine.

Ochsner officials said that 60-70 percent, or 180 million Americans, need to be immune to achieve “herd immunity.” They also added that it is not known, yet, if this will be an annual vaccine, but trials are showing that the immunity may last longer than the flu vaccine. 

The number of COVID-19 patients in Louisiana hospitals is at 1,589, according to figures posted by the state health department Friday, which comes just three days after the Chief Administrative Officer with the Willis-Knighton Health System, Brian Crawford, announced that all four of the health system’s facilities had reached capacity.

“Today at Ochsner around our facilities, we have about 330 COVID-19 inpatients. That is up from 250 just a week ago,” Warner Thomas, Ochsner CEO, said.

Hospitalizations are nearing the peak of 1,600 that occurred during the summer’s second surge of the virus. During the first wave, as many as 2,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Louisiana at one time. Recent numbers show that there have been more than 261,000 cases of COVID-19 in Louisiana, and the virus has been responsible for 6,767 deaths in the state, as of Friday.

Patient vaccinations could be made available in January, once the FDA clears the vaccine for mass distribution.