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Local vaccination rate reaches 16 percent

As the availability of shots continues to increase, Alcorn County’s rate of fully vaccinated residents has climbed to 16 percent.

State health leaders said a large amount of Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being injected into the mix of vaccine distribution across Mississippi this week, along with the continuing supply of Pfizer and Moderna.

“We’re trying to find different ways to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine out to folks,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said during a talk with the Mississippi State Medical Association Friday afternoon. “We have engaged in some aggressive partnerships with some urgent care clinics where we know folks like to go for convenience.”

Gov. Tate Reeves said during Tuesday’s briefing he expects there is some pent-up demand for the one-shot solution.

As of Tuesday afternoon, thousands of vaccination appointments were available at the nearest drive-through sites in Lee and Lafayette counties as supply begins to catch up with demand.

“We certainly have got a more ample supply than we were dealing with just a few weeks ago,” said Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist.

The state is urging physicians to sign up to administer the vaccine if they have not already done so.

“We know that doctors are the most trusted source for vaccine-related information,” said Dobbs, “and what we are seeing is a lot of patients are waiting to get it in their doctor’s office, so we need the doctors’ help to take it into your clinic and get your folks protected.”

There will soon be a need for pediatricians to sign up, he said, as the approved age for vaccinations is likely to drop below 16.

Dobbs is also encouraging doctors to urge members of the clergy to be advocates for protecting their flocks.

COVID-19 case counts continue to be vastly improved, but that good news continues to come with caution. As of Tuesday, Magnolia Regional Health Center reported five patients currently hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, up from 3 the previous day but far from the more than 30 at the peak of hospitalizations.

Dr. Jim Gilmore, the chief medical officer, told the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors on Monday that he will be keeping an eye on whether spring break and Easter gatherings result in a spike in a couple of weeks. Now, he said, is not the time to let pandemic fatigue influence behavior.

“You’ve still got to wear your mask when you can, wash your hands as much as you can, avoid large gatherings,” he said. “Maybe towards the summer we can get back to a more normal lifestyle.”

The county had three cases via suspected community transmission during the week of March 21 to 27, down from 5 the previous week, and a test positivity rate of 2.9 percent for the period of March 10 to 23, down from 3.8 percent from March 3 to 16.

As of Friday, the state had documented a total of 68 cases of the emerging variants.

“The vast majority of those are the U.K. variant, which is the predominant variant identified in the United States,” said Byers. “We’ve had a smattering of the California variant strains and then just the one South African variant.”

The doctors are seeing good news for the vaccines against the variants.

“I think it’s very reassuring that the Pfizer vaccine and, by extension, probably the Moderna, is showing remarkable resilience for the variants,” said Dobbs. “It’s basically equivalent to the baseline strains as far as protection. I think it just reiterates how important the vaccine is.”

‘Let voters decide’: Ballot initiative to expand Medicaid filed

After years of partisan fear and loathing and failed attempts in the Legislature, health care and racial justice advocates want Mississippi voters to force the issue and expand Medicaid at the ballot box.

A nonprofit incorporated by the president of the Mississippi Hospital Association and others has filed preliminary paperwork to start ballot Initiative 76, which would put Medicaid expansion in the state constitution, draw down billions of dollars in federal funds and provide health care to potentially hundreds of thousands of working, low-income, uninsured Mississippians.

Mississippi is one of just 12 states that has refused to expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens without the ability to afford health care coverage and rejecting at least $1 billion per year in federal funds.

“Hospitals and our working poor across the state of Mississippi cannot keep waiting,” MHA President Tim Moore told Mississippi Today on Monday. “There’s all the federal money we are leaving in D.C., our taxpayer dollars that we need to bring back to help our citizens. We do that with everything else, accept federal help, but for some reason not with this.

“It’s time to let the Mississippi voters decide.”

The planning stages of the ballot initiative signals a broad coalition may be on board with the effort. Corey Wiggins, the executive director of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, has worked closely with Moore and others on launching the initiative.

“Medicaid expansion, which would provide healthcare to over 200,000 Mississippians and bring over a billion dollars in federal funds home to our state, is an issue we’ve encouraged legislators to pass for years,” Wiggins told Mississippi Today.

Moore, Hattiesburg pediatrician Dr. John Gaudet and public health executive and advocate Nakeitra Burse incorporated the Healthcare for Mississippi nonprofit and filed the initial paperwork to try to put the issue before voters. On March 31, the Mississippi secretary of state published an initial ballot title and summary in the Clarion Ledger public notice section. Now, those involved would have to collect about 106,000 signatures of registered voters to put the issue before voters, likely in the 2022 midterm elections.

Moore said the Mississippi Hospital Association will vote on Friday whether to join in the initiative push – very likely given the association’s long-running advocacy of expansion to help save financially ailing hospitals across the state and help the uninsured working poor in the poorest state in the nation. Moore said he hopes numerous other groups that have supported expansion will promptly get on board with the initiative drive.

Many health advocates have pushed for Mississippi to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act and draw down billions in federal dollars to a state already heavily reliant on federal spending. The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has highlighted health care disparities in the state, which is home to one of the highest percentages of uninsured residents in the nation. Congress further incentivized Mississippi to expand Medicaid in its latest stimulus package, upping the federal match to the 12 states that have resisted expansion.

But state GOP leaders, starting with former Gov. Phil Bryant, have opposed the move, saying they don’t want to help expand “Obamacare” and that they don’t trust the federal government to keep footing the bill, eventually leaving state taxpayers on the hook.

Meanwhile, hospitals – especially smaller rural ones – say they are awash in red ink from providing millions of dollars of care each year to uninsured and unhealthy people in Mississippi.

Current Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has remained steadfastly opposed to expanding Medicaid, as has Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn. Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has said he’s open to discussion on the issue – including last week as the legislature ended its annual session – but expansion has been a nonstarter despite vigorous lobbying efforts by MHA and others.

Just last week, Gunn reiterated his opposition.

“I am not open to Medicaid expansion,” Gunn said. “We cannot afford it, and there are numerous other reasons … Taxpayers cannot afford it.”

Reeves’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“Hospitals have tried to work very closely with the state leadership since 2013,” Moore said. “And we have just not been able to move things in that direction. At some point in time you just have to make a decision to move along another avenue.”

Mississippi voters last election took matters in hand on another long-running health care issue, overwhelmingly approving a medical marijuana program by enshrining it in the state constitution. Moore said he believes Medicaid expansion is likewise popular with Mississippi voters.

“If you look at just outside, public polling, you’ve seen numbers approaching 60 percent just with likely Republican voters,” Moore said.

Moore said the ballot initiative language, if successful, will likely be broad approval of expansion, not a long, detailed directive like medical marijuana, which brought some criticism that it tied state leaders hands in creating an effective, regulated program.

“Health care shouldn’t be in the constitution,” Moore said. “Neither should medical marijuana. That’s not what it’s for. It should have been taken up and dealt with in the Mississippi Legislature. But they did not do that. They didn’t handle it, and so you have to take the next step and put it before voters.”

After Healthcare for Mississippi filed its initial paperwork for the initiative, the state attorney general’s office drafted an initial title and ballot summary for Initiative 76. The group can challenge the wording of the title, which it is doing, Moore and Wiggins said.

The AG’s title draft says “Should Mississippi amend its constitution to require expansion of Medicaid eligibility for people between the ages of 18 and 65?” Moore said this is misleading, and “has no mention of low incomes or working poor.”

Mississippi is one of 12 states that has not expanded Medicaid to provide health coverage for people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $17,600 a year for an individual. Estimates vary from about 170,000 to 400,000 on how many Mississippians would qualify, with GOP leaders claiming the larger number.

The state would pay 10 percent of the cost – estimates range from about $75 million to more than $150 million a year – and the feds would cover the rest, estimated at $1 billion a year. The Mississippi Hospital Association has pitched a plan to lawmakers that the state share could be paid by taxes on hospitals and fees paid by the new Medicaid enrollees.

But the American Rescue Plan recently passed by Congress would provide further incentives for states that expand Medicaid, dropping the state’s share of the cost further.

“For a number of years, the federal government has been offering us a $1 million a day to take care of sick people,” Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, chair of Senate Public Health recently said. “Now they are offering $1 million a day to take that other $1 million a day. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Mississippi hospitals are footing the bill for uninsured Mississippians, including about $600 million in uncompensated care in 2019, with costs steadily rising. Advocates of Medicaid expansion say it would not only help save Mississippi’s rural hospitals – many of which have either gone under or teeter on the brink of bankruptcy – but create thousands of jobs and help the state’s economy.

“It’s encouraging to see the conversations around improved access to healthcare in Mississippi,” said Dan Jones, vice chancellor and dean emeritus at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Under current conditions, many hardworking Mississippians in jobs without health insurance coverage could gain access to health care only afforded through health insurance coverage. And this can be accomplished in a way to gain substantial economic benefit for our state.”

While supportive of any effort to expand health care in Mississippi, Jones said he believes the best way forward is through lobbying lawmakers, not the ballot initiative process.

“While I appreciate the effort by some to proceed with a ballot initiative regarding Medicaid reform, in my opinion, working directly with our legislative leaders and members is the ideal way to accomplish the goal of increased healthcare access,” he said. “Our legislature changed our state flag when many thought it an impossible political process. I’m confident the same spirit of moving Mississippi and Mississippians forward can result in improved health care access.”

Center releases parents handbook for students with disabilities

Students with disabilities are graduating from public high schools in Mississippi at an all-time high rate.

Locally rates are up as well as Alcorn County schools graduate around 52 percent of their students with disabilities while Corinth city schools graduate around 37 percent.

Statewide the graduation rates have increased over the last four years growing from 23 percent in 2014 to more than 52 percent in 2019.

To help keep that number growing the Southern Poverty Law Center has released a new e-guide for Mississippi parents of students with disabilities.

“Helping Your Child with A Disability Get A Good Education: A Guide for Parents” is a new handbook that helps parents of students with disabilities in Mississippi navigate the complex system that governs the educational services their children receive.

The handbook provides parents with a step-by-step process to ensure their children receive the appropriate educational services they are entitled to under the law. While the guide is applicable anywhere in the U.S., it is based primarily on policies and procedures that govern the process in Mississippi, from referral and diagnosis to the creation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

“The process to identify, diagnose and design an appropriate educational program for a child with a disability can be particularly stressful for parents given the complexity of the system and laws that oversee the process,” said Treshika Melvin, senior community advocate for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights practice group. “This guide breaks down the steps and considerations they should take at every stage of the process and provides a basic understanding of their rights under the law to empower them and inform their decision-making on behalf of their child.”

Federal law provides students with disabilities with the supports they need to receive the same quality education that every other student receives. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities are guaranteed access to a “free, appropriate public education.” Schools receiving federal funds must also adhere to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in any school program or activity.

The guide explains that parents play a vital role in their child’s educational success. Underscoring their right to participate in IEP team meetings, the guide encourages parents to communicate frequently with teachers and school staff and review and keep track of all relevant documents about their child’s education.

Of note, the guide can be accessed at splcenter.org/IDEA

Alcorn unemployment at 5.1 percent

The local jobless count put Alcorn County at 5.1 percent unemployment in February, a slight rise from revised January figures.

The county ranked 14th among the 82 for the month as the rate rose from January’s 4.9 percent in not seasonally adjusted figures. The county had 790 counted as unemployed for the month, rising from 760 in January.

The county had 499 new claims for unemployment insurance, compared to 29 a year ago, and 1,094 continued claims, compared to 185 a year ago, reflecting the continued impact of the pandemic.

Mississippi’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February 2021 was 6.3 percent, an over the month decrease of one-tenth of a percentage point from 6.4 percent in January. The rate increased five-tenths of a percentage point when compared to February 2020. The seasonally adjusted number of unemployed individuals decreased 1,200 from January.

Rates ranged from 3.9 percent in Rankin County to 15.5 percent in Jefferson County. Tishomingo County was at 4.7 percent, ranking 8th; Prentiss County, 4.8 percent, ranking 11th; and Tippah County, 5 percent, ranking 13th.

Mississippi’s not seasonally adjusted non-farm employment decreased 800 over the month and was 46,700 lower than one year ago. The leisure & hospitality sector recorded the largest monthly employment decrease, while the manufacturing sector had the largest monthly employment gain.

Across the U.S., unemployment rates were lower in 23 states and the District of Columbia for the month, higher in four states and stable in 23 states. Non-farm payroll employment increased in 11 states, decreased in three states and was essentially unchanged in 36 states and the District.

Nearly half of new US virus infections are in just 5 states

Nearly half of new coronavirus infections nationwide are in just five states – a situation that is putting pressure on the federal government to consider changing how it distributes vaccines by sending more doses to hot spots.

New York, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey together reported 44 percent of the nation’s new COVID-19 infections, or nearly 197,500 new cases, in the latest available seven-day period, according to state health agency data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Total U.S. infections during the same week numbered more than 452,000.

The heavy concentration of new cases in states that account for 22 percent of the U.S. population has prompted some experts and elected officials to call for President Joe Biden’s administration to ship additional vaccine doses to those places. So far, the White House has shown no signs of shifting from its policy of dividing vaccine doses among states based on population.

Sending extra doses to places where infection numbers are climbing makes sense, said Dr. Elvin H. Geng, a professor in infectious diseases at Washington University. But it’s also complicated. States that are more successfully controlling the virus might see less vaccine as a result.

“You wouldn’t want to make those folks wait because they were doing better,” Geng said. “On the other hand, it only makes sense to send vaccines to where the cases are rising.”

The spike in cases has been especially pronounced in Michigan, where the seven-day average of daily new infections reached 6,719 cases Sunday – more than double what it was two weeks earlier. Only New York reported higher case numbers. And California and Texas, which have vastly larger populations than Michigan, are reporting less than half its number of daily infections.

Though Michigan has seen the highest rate of new infections in the past two weeks, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she does not plan to tighten restrictions. She has blamed the virus surge on pandemic fatigue, which has people moving about more, as well as more contagious variants.

“Taking steps back wasn’t going to fix the issue,” Whitmer said as she got her first vaccine Tuesday at Ford Field in Detroit, home of the NFL’s Lions. “What we have to do is really put our foot down on the pedal on vaccines” and urge people to wear masks, keep their social distance and wash their hands.

Whitmer got the shot the day after Michigan expanded eligibility to everyone 16 and older. She asked the White House last week during a conference call with governors whether it has considered sending extra vaccine to states battling virus surges. She was told all options were on the table.

In New York City, vaccination appointments are still challenging to get. Mayor Bill de Blasio has publicly harangued the federal government about the need for a bigger vaccine allotment almost daily, a refrain he repeated when speaking to reporters Tuesday.

“We still need supply, supply, supply,” de Blasio said, before adding, “But things are really getting better.”

On the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not called publicly for an increase in New York’s vaccine allotment, even as cases ticked up in recent weeks and the number of hospitalized people hit a plateau.

In New Jersey, where the seven-day rolling average of daily new infections has risen over the past two weeks, from 4,050 daily cases to 4,250, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said he is constantly talking to the White House about demand for the coronavirus vaccine, though he stopped short of saying he was lobbying for more vaccines because of the state’s high infection rate.

Vaccine shipments to New Jersey were up 12 percent in the last week, Murphy said Monday, though he questioned whether that’s enough.

“We constantly look at, OK, we know we’re going up, but are we going up at the rate we should be, particularly given the amount of cases we have?” Murphy said.

New virus variants are clearly one of the drivers in the increase, said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco. Failure to suppress the rise in cases will lead to more people getting sick and dying, she said, and drive increases in other parts of the country.

“More vaccine needs to be where the virus is,” Bibbins-Domingo said, adding that people should get over the “scarcity mindset” that has them thinking surging vaccine into one place will hurt people elsewhere.

In Florida, relaxed safeguards during a busy spring break season likely helped spread virus variants, said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. The state’s seven-day average of daily new infections has exceeded 5,400, an increase of 20 percent in the past two weeks.

While many new infections appear to be among younger people, Salemi said he’s worried about Florida’s seniors. About 78 percent of residents age 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, but roughly 1 million more still have not gotten any shots.

“We seemingly have the supply,” Salemi said. “Are these people not planning to get vaccinated?”

Talk of sending extra shots to some states comes at a time when the number of daily infections in the U.S. has fallen dramatically compared to a January spike following the holiday season. However, the seven-day average of daily infections been rising slowly since mid-March.

The five states seeing the most infections stand out. As of Tuesday, 31 U.S. states were reporting seven-day averages of fewer than 1,000 new daily cases.

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said Tuesday more than 28 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be delivered to states this week. That allocation will bring the U.S. total to more than 90 million doses distributed in the past three weeks.

The news came as Biden announced more than 150 million coronavirus shots have been administered since he took office, and that all adults will be eligible to receive a vaccine by April 19.

About 40 percent of U.S. adults have now received at least one COVID-19 shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 23 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated – including more than half of Americans 65 and older.

Geng said the nation should take a step back and go slow. Even just a few more weeks of Americans sticking with social distancing and other precautions could make a huge difference.

“The take-home message here is, let’s not jump the gun,” Geng said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. We all see it there. And we will get there. Slow and steady.”


Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. Smith reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington, David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, also contributed to this report.