POLITICSIn Louisiana, Public Health Workers Combat Vaccine Misinformation

In Louisiana, Public Health Workers Combat Vaccine Misinformation

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Mayor Adrian Perkins, a Shreveport native and graduate of West Point and Harvard Law School who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was sued last year when he tried one. On Friday, he announced a new advisory urging residents to wear masks indoors, a day after the parish commission voted to postpone action on a mandate.

The falsehoods filling social media feeds dwarf whatever vaccine salesmanship power he has, he said. One complicating phenomenon, he said, was the sharing of misinformation between the Black community, which has a long-held skepticism of vaccines, and a white population that sees the vaccine and virus restrictions as government overreach.

Dr. Whyte framed her struggles getting people vaccinated as part of a broader negligence of public health. She said her department was continually underfunded despite significant rates of syphilis and maternal and infant mortality. It is wrestling with infant vaccinations and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and is fighting an increase in drug overdoses.

Her department has 99 employees, but few for preventing and tracking infectious disease. She oversees one epidemiologist and a community health worker supervisor who has no one to supervise. She is starting to see some help from federal funding appropriated during the pandemic: She plans to hire three community health workers soon, a social worker to replace one who retired years ago, and at least one more epidemiologist, most likely with funds provided by the C.D.C. She manages contact tracing with a small team.

As Dr. Whyte explained the city’s challenges in an interview, Calandre Singh, an epidemiologist in Shreveport for the state health department, interrupted with a warning. The funeral for a police deputy in neighboring Webster Parish was set for the next day and was likely to draw hundreds of people indoors, likely without masks — a possible superspreading event. Dr. Whyte and her team consulted with the organizers, who promised to enforce social distancing and a mask requirement. No outbreak has been tied to the event thus far, she said.

Within a month, Dr. Whyte anticipates even knottier debates about the need for masks and vaccines in schools. Federal regulators have not yet authorized the vaccine for the youngest children, but those 12 to 15 have been eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since May.

At times over the last year, Dr. Whyte has felt so emotionally wrung out that she has been tempted to quit. Her otherwise healthy husband, a physician, spent two months on a ventilator last year, an experience she describes vividly in her pitches to community members about vaccination. The exchange with Ms. Peavy at the City Council meeting had left her angry and depleted.

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