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In Louisiana, government skepticism is hurting vaccination rates. Will incentives help?

While COVID-19 vaccination rates in some parts of the country are approaching nearly 70%, other areas are seeing rates flatten or even decline. As William Brangham reports, vaccinations in the southern U.S. have been especially slow, with no southern state having yet topped 40%. Dr. Joseph Kanter, an emergency physician in Louisiana, and the state's top medical official, joins us to explore why.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While COVID-19 vaccination rates in some parts of the country are approaching President Biden's July 4 goal of 70 percent, others areas are seeing rates flatten or even decline.

    But, as William Brangham reports, in some states, the rates have dropped dramatically.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy, and vaccinations in the Southern U.S. have been especially slow.

    Mississippi's is the lowest in the country, with just over 28 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Louisiana's rate is 33 percent. And no Southern state has yet topped 40 percent.

    So, why is this occurring? Dr. Joseph Kanter is an emergency physician in Louisiana, and he also serves as the state's top medical official.

    Dr. Kanter, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Two-thirds of Louisianians are not fully vaccinated. Do you have a sense as to who those people are and why they're not vaccinated yet?

  • Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer:

    Thanks, William. It's really nice to be with you.

    Look, it really does run the gambit across Louisiana. And I will just say, we have done a lot of great work in Louisiana. We are not where we want to be or need to be.

    What we're seeing is different people have yet to choose to get vaccinated for different reasons. You do see a lot of access issues still, particularly amongst marginalized communities. We have a lot of marginalized communities in Louisiana, also a lot of earned mistrust of the system.

    And we have a lot of baseline mistrust of government and suspicions. I will tell you, these myths that are out there about the vaccine have become really pervasive and challenging to combat. So, we're seeing challenges both in urban and rural areas.

    We recognize the strategy differs a little bit, depending on who you're trying to target. And we still have a lot of work ahead of us to do.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's talk about those two different slices.

    The people who are hard to reach, maybe not so sure about the people who are delivering that message to them, how do you reach those communities in Louisiana? I know there's a lot rural parts of your state. How do you reach those people?

  • Dr. Joseph Kanter:

    It's all about trusted messengers. And that actually spans anyone that you're trying to reach.

    You know, we have got to be humble, and know that the government or myself is likely not the best messenger for everyone in Louisiana. There's no question about that. But somebody is.

    For everyone that harbors concerns or hesitancy about the vaccine, there is someone that they listen to, whether it's their physician, whether it's a faith leader, whether it's a community leader. There is somebody that people listen to. And what we're trying to do is to hone in on those individuals and empower them to help spread this message and convene conversations.

    This is going to be a slower process. It's going to be a more deliberate process. But we think it's probably the only thing that's going to encourage people who have yet to be vaccinated to feel comfortable in doing so.

  • William Brangham:

    How concerned are you about this — the Delta variant, the one originally discovered in India? We know it's more contagious. We certainly seem to believe that it's more likely to make you sick and hospitalize you.

    Is it in Louisiana? And isn't that a real threat?

  • Dr. Joseph Kanter:

    It is. There's no question about it.

    Look, nationwide, it's doubling in prevalence about every two weeks. And it accounts for about 12 to 14 percent of all the COVID in our region down here in the South, which is above the national average. So, we look at what we have for risk in the next coming months, and when the weather gets warmer — it's already pretty hot — it's the same thing that happens up north, where the weather drives people indoors.

    That increases transmission. So, that puts us at liability. The Delta variant, which, as you mentioned, volume is more transmissible and making people sicker and spreading quickly, puts us at liability too.

    So, we know what we do right now with vaccinations is largely going to dictate what our fall and our winter will look like.

  • William Brangham:

    We know that a lot of states around the country have had some success with incentives, trying to lure people in to get them to get the shot.

    I understand you just made an announcement about a big lottery and some scholarships. Do you think that those things are going to work?

  • Dr. Joseph Kanter:

    Yes, I think they help. I don't think they are a silver bullet. I don't think there is any one single silver bullet.

    But I think they help. I think they drum up excitement. And I think, for some people, it is an encouragement. And, look, I think there's a lot of conversation about whether these are worth the money or right or wrong. But we're in a 100-year event right now. And we still have people dying. We announced seven new deaths today.

    We're averaging in Louisiana between 45 and 65 deaths a week. When you're still seeing people die, when people's lives are on the line, you got to consider everything. Nothing's off the table. And that's the perspective that we take on this.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Joseph Kanter, state health officer for the state of Louisiana, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Joseph Kanter:

    Thank you. Been a pleasure.

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