With Mississippi hitting a wall in efforts to vaccinate younger residents who may not feel the need to get the shot, state health leaders are concerned for the potential consequences later in the year.

“We are lagging in younger age groups, and that’s one of the things that’s going to cause us a lot of difficulty as we go into the fall and as the variants continue to spread,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said in a press conference on Wednesday about COVID-19 vaccination efforts. “The challenge of that is going to be we’re going to have ongoing outbreaks. It’s going to impede our ability to open up schools fully without having to go through quarantine and close off events. Also, it’s going to further threaten those vulnerable groups, because we’re maintaining transmission.”

Among those who are 65 and older, still almost a quarter remain unvaccinated. The health leaders are increasingly attempting to appeal to a sense of personal responsibility: Don’t be the person who infects a vulnerable older family member.

The doctor sees a prominent mindset of, “It doesn’t affect me.”

“It’s now the third leading cause of death in this country, and we have an exit door,” said Dobbs. “Too many of us are not choosing to use that door. And when we don’t all use it together in a sufficient number, it keeps us all vulnerable.”

Part of the problem, he said, is the culture does not have a mindset for prevention.

“If we had a medication that had a thousand times higher side effects than the vaccine, we would take it when we’re sick,” said Dobbs. “But we won’t take a highly effective vaccine because we don’t have a preventive mindset. It’s something that’s really a challenge for us. There’s not a catchy jingle or messaging that’s going to shift that. It’s going to be a structural change that’s going to make a difference for us going forward if we really want to get over this.

“Unfortunately, politics has muddied the water on this. COVID is science. There’s nothing political about breast cancer, heart attacks, and there’s nothing that needs to be political about COVID.”

State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said an increased proportion of cases is now showing up in the younger populations.

“Last week, we had a number of deaths that were reported out in individuals who were in their 40s and late 30s, and these were unvaccinated individuals,” he said.

Through Wednesday, the state had identified 29 cases of the Delta variant, mostly in the Hinds and Madison county area. With the U.K. variant, Byers said the outpatient monoclonal antibody treatment is sometimes not as effective, and the same appears to be true for the Delta variant.

Byers said schools will be advised of the latest CDC guidelines for mask use ahead of the new school year.

“A lot of times,” he said, “those measures break down more in a sports activity or an extracurricular activity, especially when folks are not wearing masks, and especially when the kids are not vaccinated. The more kids and teachers that we get vaccinated, the less of a risk of transmission those sorts of events are going to be.”

Local statistics

The latest numbers for Alcorn County are mixed. While Magnolia Regional Health Center reported only one patient hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 as of Friday, the death count increased by two in the past week to 74. One of those deaths, identified by a review of death certificates, occurred in the time frame of March 29 to June 9.

During the week of June 13 to 19, the county had 33 cases via suspected community transmission, jumping from 14 the prior week. The positive rate was 3.1 percent for the period of June 2 to 15. The county ranked second in the state for the highest rate of cased per 100,000 for the period of June 1 to 14.

Four variant cases have been identified in Alcorn County, all of the U.K. (Alpha) variety.

Neighboring counties all had case counts in the single digits for the week of June 13 to 19 with little change from the prior week – nine in Tishomingo, five in Prentiss and four in Tippah.

For McNairy County, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 1.2 new cases per day for June 10 to 23, rising from 0.7 during the prior 14 days. The positive rate was 4.2 percent over the last seven days.

On Friday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 243 new cases and four new deaths.

As of Friday, the number of residents fully vaccinated in Alcorn County is 24 percent; Mississippi, 30 percent; and the U.S., 46 percent.

Staff Writer

Jebb Johnston is a 1991 Alcorn Central High School graduate and a 1995 Ole Miss journalism graduate. His primary beats are city and county government.

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