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Amid COVID-19 spike, Louisiana names vaccine lottery winners

July 16, 2021 GMT
First lady Donna Edwards, left, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, unveil a giant check during a news conference at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., on Thursday, June 17, 2021, to announce that Louisiana will participate in a lottery, giving cash prizes and scholarships to residents who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)
First lady Donna Edwards, left, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, unveil a giant check during a news conference at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., on Thursday, June 17, 2021, to announce that Louisiana will participate in a lottery, giving cash prizes and scholarships to residents who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana announced the first winners of its COVID-19 vaccine lottery Friday, a celebratory moment of cash and scholarship awards darkened by the worries caused by a new surge in cases of the coronavirus illness primarily among the unvaccinated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards urged his state’s residents to embrace the shots to lessen the impact of the fast-spreading delta variant, which is driving the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in a state that has been hard hit by prior outbreaks.

“After a number of months of improving conditions relative to the pandemic and COVID-19, we have like the other 49 states started moving in the wrong direction,” Edwards said. “Clearly, this is attributable to two things: One is the emergence of and the growing prevalence of the delta variant of COVID-19, and secondly — and this goes hand-in-hand with it — vaccination rates that remain woefully inadequate.”

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The Democratic governor and state health officials hoped the lottery, which will provide $2.3 million in cash prizes to 14 winners, would turn around Louisiana’s lagging vaccination rates. But while the lottery seems to have spurred an uptick in the shots, the governor’s chief health adviser Dr. Joe Kanter has acknowledged the vaccination increases were lower than desired.

Two winners were announced Friday. Clement Dasalla, an 80-year-old former police officer from New Orleans, will receive $100,000 in cash, while Skyla Degrasse, a 17-year-old high school senior from Hammond, will get $100,000 deposited into a college savings account. Four more weeks of winners will be announced, with a $1 million grand prize to be awarded in mid-August.

But that news was muted against the grim information presented by Edwards, Kanter and Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, about the burgeoning fourth surge of coronavirus cases since the outbreak began in 2020.

O’Neal starkly said: “We only have two choices. We’re either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic, or we are going to accept death, a lot of it.”

The number of new COVID-19 cases confirmed each day in Louisiana has been rising for the last four weeks, according to Kanter, while the percentage of tests returning positive topped 6% this week after remaining below 5% since February. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has more doubled in two weeks, reaching 563 Friday.

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The increases are nowhere near the height of previous outbreaks, when more than 2,000 COVID-19 patients in Louisiana were hospitalized at a time and dozens of people died from the disease each day. But health care officials worry Louisiana is headed in that direction.

O’Neal said her hospital is seeing younger patients in this latest surge, including more children, and she said people previously infected with COVID-19 don’t seem to have protection from the delta variant, which she described as “a different beast.”

“We cannot take what we think we learned from last year’s virus and apply it to this summer because it’s killing us,” she said. “We’re being overwhelmed, and it’s happening really fast.”

Seeking to encourage vaccination rates, Edwards noted that since February, 97% of the state’s new COVID-19 cases and deaths have been in people who aren’t vaccinated.

Louisiana lags nearly every other state in vaccine distribution. Its vaccination rate per capita exceeds only that of Mississippi and Alabama, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Slightly more than 1.8 million people, 39% of Louisiana’s total population, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health department data. More than 1.6 million people have been fully immunized, 36% of the population.

Edwards blamed misinformation about the risks and safety of the vaccines for the difficulty in boosting immunization rates, but he said the state will keep trying to persuade people.

“We’re going to continue to furnish the best, most reliable information we can to everyone no matter how intransigent they may seem,” he said. “We’re never going to give up on any segment of our population.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.