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Louisiana's Struggle To Get Its Health Care Workers Vaccinated Against COVID

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Louisiana now has the country's highest number of COVID cases per capita, with the delta variant rapidly spreading across the state. Vaccinations there are rising but remain among the lowest in the nation. And there's one group of unvaccinated people that has public health officials particularly concerned - health care workers. From WWNO in New Orleans, Rosemary Westwood reports.

ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: Andreas Braun is a tall, stocky 51-year-old emergency room nurse in New Orleans. He got sick with COVID-19 last year, but his case was mild. Given that and his concerns over how fast the vaccines were rolled out, he put off getting vaccinated. And then this July...

ANDREAS BRAUN: Bam, I got sick and got COVID the second time.

WESTWOOD: Braun spent five days in the ICU struggling to breathe. He was so sick he can't remember much of that time. It made him realize...

BRAUN: Hey, this is - this is no joke.

WESTWOOD: He's since changed his mind about the vaccines. And his wife, who's also a nurse, recently decided to get the shot. But many health care workers still question the vaccine's safety, according to hospital officials and a national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post. Those worries have persisted despite rigorous trials and the fact that millions of doses have been given out with only very rare instances of serious side effects. As a result, a significant percentage of health care workers around the country remain unvaccinated. One recent estimate put the number of unvaccinated hospital workers who have contact with patients at 1 in 4.

In Louisiana, the state's largest health system, Ochsner Health, reports about one-third of employees are not fully vaccinated, though vaccination rates are much higher among doctors than other staff. It's a major concern for public health officials here facing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19, mostly among the unvaccinated. Dr. Joseph Kanter is the state health officer. He says it's crucial for health care workers to get vaccinated, first and foremost, to protect themselves.

JOSEPH KANTER: Because I'm sick and tired of seeing nurses get sick and die.

WESTWOOD: They could also spread COVID-19 to their co-workers and vulnerable patients. And sick staff are worsening an existing nursing shortage.

KANTER: And we just can't spare any health care workers right now. We're really in a crunch.

WESTWOOD: Hospitals across the country are increasingly mandating that their workers get vaccinated, including a handful in Louisiana. Still, the majority of hospitals in the state aren't requiring vaccines, including Ochsner Health. CEO Warner Thomas says the organization will mandate vaccinations after the vaccines get full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

WARNER THOMAS: Every day, we're vaccinating more people in our workforce, but it's not enough.

WESTWOOD: Ecoee Rooney is the president of the Louisiana State Nurses Association. It represents nurses with a range of opinions on vaccine mandates, and so it hasn't taken a position. Rooney says she's talked to colleagues who have been hesitant to get the vaccine, and she can empathize with the fear people feel.

ECOEE ROONEY: It's something going into their bodies, and they have questions, and they're concerned. And I completely understand that. I do.

WESTWOOD: But she says the delta variant is too great a threat not to encourage every nurse to get the shot. In the meantime, Louisiana health officials say the latest COVID surge shows no signs of slowing. For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Westwood in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "EKTACHROME/ECTOPLASM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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