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Farmington elects new mayor, several new aldermen

A change in leadership is coming for Farmington.

A political newcomer, Reece Wallin, unseated the four-term incumbent mayor, Dale Fortenberry, in a vote of 163 to 133, and the five-member Board of Aldermen will see a shuffle with three new members.

Ricky Gibens, who wears the hat of county fire coordinator, among other hats, led the field for alderman with 175 and will be new to the board. Also making the cut are incumbent Johnny Potts, 171; incumbent Jeff Patterson, 155; newcomer Shane Bridges, 152; and newcomer Tammy Philamlee, 145.

Falling short were incumbent Luther Rhodes, 141; incumbent Lowell Gann, 135; incumbent Shane Harvell, 104; and Benson Skelton, 82.

With one term as alderman before winning the mayor’s office, Fortenberry will leave the government of Farmington after 20 years. His time has included the development of the park and walking trail, expansion of sewer service and renovation of the City Hall.

“I want to personally thank Dale Fortenberry for his years of service to the City of Farmington,” Wallin told the Daily Corinthian. “He’s helped the city a lot.”

Wallin and his wife returned to Farmington after his retirement in 2014. Among his experience, he worked as a chief financial officer with an organization in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that provided mental health and substance abuse services to multiple counties. Most recently, he served as an IT director in construction in Kentucky.

Wallin said his goals are to have “an open and honest and transparent government” that focuses on and serves the citizens. He also plans to work to recruit new business to the city.

“I’ve got a lot of experience with trying to build businesses and things of that nature,” he said.

Municipal Clerk Debora Jackson said the election had a pretty good turnout with 304 votes, or about 30 percent of the town’s registered voters.

All of Farmington’s candidates ran as Republicans, leaving Tuesday’s primary to settle the contests.

The new term of office will begin July 1.

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Necessity, not a luxury
FFC awards Ace $5 million to connect 3,400 to broadband

Ace Fiber received over $5 million in federal funds earlier this week to bring high-speed broadband internet to more than 3,400 homes and businesses in Alcorn County.

According to Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, broadband access in 2021 is as important as electricity was in the 1930s.

During the Monday announcement in Tupelo, Presley said, “Rural Mississippians deserve the same quality of internet service as folks living in our nation’s biggest cities and these funds will make that happen.”

The money is coming by way of a much larger designation from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Mississippi received a total of $495 million of the $9.2 billion awarded to states.

Northern Mississippi electric cooperative subsidiaries received $91 million to expand broadband access across the region and connect 42,153 homes and businesses.

“Whether it be online education, telework, telehealth or improving the quality of life, broadband access is a necessity, not a luxury,” added Presley. “I look forward to working with these cooperatives as we strive to get broadband deployed. I will not stop on this mission until the last house at the end of the most rural road is connected.”

Local county’s receiving funds include:

Alcorn – Ace Fiber, $5,510,502 to connect 3,428 properties

Prentiss – Prentiss Connect, $6,803,151 to connect 3,218 properties

Tippah – TEPA Connect, $6,766,360 to connect 2,163 properties

Tishomingo – Tishomingo Connect, $10,980,762 to connect 4,960 properties

Each subsidiary will also now be allowed to participate in the FCC’s Lifeline program. Lifeline provides a credit on broadband services to consumers who meet low-income eligibility.

Presley said subsidiaries can immediately begin using the funds.

Ace has already connected a large portion of the county.

The northeastern part of the county from the Tennessee line just past the city limits on the west end and most of Corinth, Farmington, Glen and Kendrick currently have access.

Coming soon are the extreme west and south ends of the county with construction scheduled for Biggersville and Rienzi in the summer and the Kossuth area in the winter.

ACE’s speed tiers are 2 Gbps, 1 Gbps and 200 Mbps with equal upload speeds. The power cooperative does not require a contract for the internet service.

Leaders put state on the path to vaccine equity

As Mississippi’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines began to ramp up in early 2021, a troubling truth was revealed about the shots being put into people’s arms across the state: Black Mississippians weren’t getting their fair share.

Two months after the first doses were administered in the state, Black Mississippians had received just 19 percent of the total vaccines given, despite making up 38 percent of the state’s population. After bearing the brunt of cases and deaths early in the pandemic, Black Mississippians were being shorted on the road to recovery.

A few months later, the picture is quite different. Mississippi is much closer to vaccine parity, with 31 percent of total shots going to Black residents. For the past four weeks, Black Mississippians’ share of the doses administered has been equal to or higher than their share of the population.

The Blackest state in the nation is now doing a better job vaccinating its Black residents than 42 other states. And five of the states reporting a higher share of vaccinated Black residents have a total Black population between 1-3 percent and started vaccinating their residents weeks before Mississippi.

The efforts responsible for this progress towards vaccine equity have come overwhelmingly from the community level. They’ve come from Black doctors, faith leaders and organizers, who have gone to the Mississippi State Department of Health with solutions that were taken seriously and implemented. Solutions like increasing vaccine distribution to private physicians in areas densely populated by people of color that health officials say are responsible for the significant uptick in Black Mississippians getting vaccinated.

“I have to give (community partners) the credit in large measure because they understood the value it was for their communities,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said. “They stepped up and they got vaccinated, they did it publicly and they spoke about it. And they let us know what we need to do as far as making vaccines available within their communities.”

For months, health officials have emphasized trust and access as the two main hurdles to achieving parity when talking about the racial disparity in vaccine distribution. Black community leaders advocating for the vaccine, whether from behind the pulpit or a stethoscope, quickly found that the trust issue wasn’t all it was hyped up to be.

“I am convinced, as are many of the faith leaders, that we have moved beyond that attitude of hesitancy to a problem of access, no question about it,” said Jerry Young, Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church and president of the National Baptist Convention.

Pastor Young took part in an MSDH event in February that broadcast Black pastors from around the state taking their first doses. Young says that he and other faith leaders have seen a significant decrease in vaccine hesitancy in their congregations because of their advocacy.

Black churches have served a massive role in getting shots to where people are. Some large hospitals, like St. Dominic in Jackson, have partnered with people to bring vaccination events to their churches, giving 200-300 shots at a time.

“It’s about leadership, and in our community it’s extremely important for those of us who have that kind of trust to lead by example,” Young said. “That’s from pastors working together from the Gulf Coast all the way up to Southaven.”

A sharp decline in vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans is reflected in polling data. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from December, nearly two-thirds of Black respondents were hesitant about taking the vaccine. But when the same poll was conducted in March, that number had been cut in half. Recent polls also show that vaccine hesitancy is much more widespread among white Republicans and evangelicals.

After seeing a great response from Black patients to community vaccine education efforts, physicians like Dr. Andrea Phillips, who runs a small Jackson practice, set out to confront the outsized role vaccine hesitancy had in the conversation about racial disparities in the vaccine rollout.

“We were disturbed by the narrative that the sole reason for this was hesitancy in the African American community. We knew that that was a part of it, but we were addressing that and very aggressively,” Phillips said.

Phillips and others started asking MSDH to increase the allotments going to community health centers and small, family practices. Since the beginning of March, more of the state’s weekly dose allotment have gone to private providers than MSDH’s drive-thru vaccination sites. Health officials have acknowledged that the state’s drive-thru sites, while great for vaccinating a lot of people quickly, are not as effective as those local partners at vaccinating Black Mississippians.

“What I think the government was not realizing is that there’s a whole section of insured Black people that just go to their doctors,” Phillips said.

Even though physicians like Phillips signed up to be vaccine providers, they found themselves waiting weeks on end for a small number of shots.

“I was like, ‘I think we’re getting pushed to the background because I only want 100 or 200 shots at a time. And these other guys can take 600 or 700 at a time because they’re big places,’” Phillips said.

Phillips had received a handful of doses to fully vaccinate legacy physicians. Luckily, she had an extra dose during the second round and was able to bring in one of her patients, an 85-year-old woman who lives less than a mile from Phillip’s practice. She was in the first group eligible for vaccination, but she wanted her shot to come from Phillips.

“I introduced her to Dr. Dobbs and I said, ‘These are the people in west Jackson that are still not getting their vaccines because providers like me aren’t getting them,” Philips said.

A week later, Dobbs sent Phillips 100 doses.

That was more than she needed for her patients, so she made the rest available to anyone eligible who wanted one. Then MSDH sent another 100 doses. Phillips, who had been administering all the shots herself, knew she couldn’t do it all alone. So she organized two weekend vaccination events where volunteers from the Magnolia Hill Foundation turned her practice into its own drive-thru site. Philips also had help administering the shots from five registered nurses from the Eliza Pillars Nurses Association, the state’s first Black nurse association.

“It was just amazing to me how many people said they didn’t really have access, it was just easier for them to get it here than Smith Wills (Jackson’s drive-thru site),” Phillips said.

Now Phillips is tired and thinking about taking two weeks off. She’ll administer the last of her doses this weekend at the church of one of the nurses who helped with her drive-thru. She doesn’t know how many more vaccination events she will personally do, but she feels good about where we are.

“Mississippi, while we’ve come a long way, there’s still a problem,” Phillips said. “If the distribution we’re seeing right now continues, I think that we will ultimately see real vaccination parity.”

Hearing set for new downtown district

The city is getting closer to adopting a new Downtown Residential Overlay District to help guide development in some of the older downtown Corinth residential neighborhoods.

The Board of Aldermen on Tuesday scheduled a public hearing for the May 18 meeting at 5 p.m. on amending the city code to incorporate the new district.

As stated in the text of the proposed ordinance, it is intended to “protect the value of property, to enhance the attractiveness of neighborhoods, to prevent development which would be incompatible with the established characteristics of the neighborhood, and to support improvement and investment in the neighborhood housing stock.”

The district is bounded generally by East Shiloh Road on the north, Tishomingo Street on the west, Buchanan Street and Douglas Street on the east, and Childs Street and Cruise Street on the south. Its provisions regulate things such as yard setbacks, lot coverage, landscaping, driveways, fencing, windows and exterior finishes. Color choices, for example, “shall not be bright or garish.”

Board members for the new district are Chad Dickerson, Tammy Frazier, Tracey Hopkins, Greg Moore and Philip Verdung. Applications for new residential construction and front facade renovation will need the new board’s approval before a building permit will be issued.

A moratorium on new construction has been in effect in the area until the new guidelines are in place.

Describing the purpose of the district, the text of the ordinance explains, “Corinth’s oldest residential neighborhoods are a critical part of the city’s character and provide a charming transition from the Historic Downtown to the rest of the community. Portions of the Mitchell and Mask and Walker Addition subdivisions have served as the northern gateway out of downtown since Corinth’s earliest times. Older neighborhoods like these benefit from a pedestrian-friendly environment, diverse architecture and evolving land use density that keep these neighborhoods attractive, convenient, and relevant. Today they serve as the best representation of Corinth’s diverse built history and represent the special qualities that draw residents to live in communities like Corinth.

“These design guidelines encourage quality development that is harmonious with the character of these neighborhoods, while embracing the continuous change a healthy community experiences over time. They provide guidance to homeowners, designers, and city staff through simple design policies to promote harmony in the immediate area while considering the neighborhood as a whole.”

Viral thoughts: Why COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Daniel Roberts hadn’t had a vaccination since he was 6. No boosters, no tetanus shots. His parents taught him inoculations were dangerous, and when the coronavirus arrived, they called it a hoax. The vaccine, they said, was the real threat.

So when the 29-year-old Tennessee man got his COVID-19 shot at his local Walmart last month, it felt like an achievement. A break with his past.

“Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax,” Roberts said, speaking of the conspiracy theories embraced by family and friends. “I don’t know why I didn’t believe all of it myself. I guess I chose to believe the facts.”

As the world struggles to break the grip of COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories, which have led people to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines.

They’re seeing links between beliefs in COVID-19 falsehoods and the reliance on social media as a source of news and information.

And they’re concluding COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secretive explanations, they give the believer a feeling of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or frightening.

The findings have implications not only for pandemic response but for the next “infodemic,” a term used to describe the crisis of COVID-19 misinformation.

“We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening the next time,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in George W. Bush’s administration. “Masks become a symbol of your political party. People are saying vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: Who do I believe?”

About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety. Increasingly, these baseless claims are prompting real-world problems.

In January, anti-vaccine activists forced a vaccine clinic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to close for a day. In Europe, dozens of cell towers burned because of bizarre claims that 5G wireless signals were triggering the infection. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed vaccine doses, medical workers were attacked, and hundreds died after consuming toxins touted as cures – all because of COVID-19 falsehoods.

The most popular conspiracy theories often help people explain complicated, tumultuous events, when the truth may be too troubling to accept, according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which researches and promotes critical thinking in the internet age.

Such theories often appear after significant or frightening moments in history: the moon landing, the Sept. 11 attacks, or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when many found it difficult to accept that a lone, deranged gunman could kill the president. Vast conspiracies involving the CIA, the mob or others are easier to digest.

“People need big explanations for big problems, for big world events,” said John Cook, a cognitive scientist and conspiracy theory expert at Monash University in Australia. “Random explanations – like bats, or wet markets – are just psychologically unsatisfying.”

This drive is so strong, Cook said, that people often believe contradictory conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for instance, initially thought COVID-19 was linked to cell towers, before deciding the virus was actually a hoax. The only explanations they didn’t entertain, he said, were the ones coming from medical experts.

Distrust of science, institutions and traditional news sources is heavily associated with stronger beliefs in conspiracy theories, as is support for pseudoscience.

Trust in American institutions has been further eroded by false statements from leaders like President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, suggested bleach as a treatment, and undermined his administration’s own experts.

An analysis by Cornell University researchers determined Trump to be the greatest driver of false coronavirus claims. Studies also show conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories or share COVID-19 misinformation.

Carmona said he was addressing a group of executives about the coronavirus recently when one man declared that the pandemic was created by the Chinese government and Democrats to hurt Trump’s reelection bid.

“When people start believing their own facts and rejecting anything the other side says, we’re in real trouble,” he said.

A shared distrust in American institutions has helped to unite several groups behind the banner of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. They include far-right groups upset about lockdowns and mask mandates, anti-vaccine activists and adherents of QAnon, who believe Trump is waging a secret war against a powerful cabal of satanic cannibals.

Besides gaining insight into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, researchers are thinking about what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to talking to friends and family who have embraced baseless claims.

And they are finding possible solutions to the broader problem of online misinformation. They include stronger efforts by social media companies and new regulations.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have long faced criticism for allowing misinformation to flourish. They haveacted more aggressively on COVID-19 misinformation, suggesting the platforms could do more to rein in misinformation about other topics, such as climate change, Cook said.

“It shows it is a matter of will and not a matter of technical innovation,” Cook said.

Addressing our species’ attraction to conspiracy theories might be more challenging. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in schools is essential, experts said, since the internet will only grow as a news source.

In recent years, an idea called inoculation theory has gained prominence. It involves using online games or tutorials to train people to think more critically about information.

One example: Cambridge University researchers created the online game Go Viral!, which teaches players by having them create their own misleading content.

Studies show the games increase resistance to online misinformation, but like many vaccines, the effects are temporary, leading researchers to wonder, as Cook said, “How do you give them the booster shot?”

Someday, these games might be placed as advertisements before online videos, or promoted with prizes, as a way to regularly vaccinate the public against misinformation.

“The true fix is education,” said Bouygues. “COVID has shown us how dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories can be, and that we have a lot of work to do.”