With the coronavirus threat increasing in recent weeks, Mississippi’s top health officials recently put their heads together for another deep dive on COVID-19.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs and State Epidemiologist Paul Byers covered a wide variety of coronavirus topics, including why they’re very worried about basketball, concerns about the coming vaccine and the communities where COVID is raging.

Following are highlights of the Q&A.

Q: Can pregnant women take this vaccine?

Dobbs: “They’re waiting to see what the data looks like … I will just say we really do like to give pregnant women a lot of vaccines like the flu shot and pertussis. And one of the things that’s important to know is pregnant women, if they get coronavirus, have a lot worse outcomes than the general population.”

Q: Some people, including children, have had nausea and vomiting with COVID. Should those who think they have just a stomach virus get tested for COVID?

Dobbs: “COVID causes so many things. We’ve seen a lot of kids who just had nausea and vomiting. If you’re asking if you should get tested for COVID, you should get tested for COVID. That’s always the right answer. We have free drive-thru testing clinics in every county pretty much at least twice a week now.”

Q: What’s the situation with sports?

Dobbs: “Basketball worries us greatly. We know that indoor environments are so much more risky. There was an analysis of an outbreak on a hockey team the CDC did, and one person gave it to like 22 people on the ice rink. That sort of thing demonstrates in the wrong setting, people breathing hard, indoors, close proximity – we’re very worried about it. And I will say that it’s been a little bit disconcerting, the prioritization we put on youth sports. There’s two levels of this – kids playing, and I know they want to play, and it’s hard on them, and they’re young and the risk of adverse events is lower, but the attendance is another issue. And so I would just like to say very clearly to everybody: Don’t go to a sporting event. It’s not safe right now.”

Q: Does COVID have mutations like the flu?

Byers: “Not to that same extent, and I think that’s one of the promising things with the vaccine is that we don’t see those same level of changes that you see with influenza.”

Q: Is it true that wearing a mask also protects the wearer?

Dobbs: “There’s a growing body of evidence that if you are exposed, it decreases the amount of virus you are exposed to, and it appears that your infection will be much less severe if you are exposed to a smaller dose of infection.”

Q: Will the vaccine be given at drive-thru clinics?

Dobbs said that may be one of the options. “The phase 1 will be mostly through what we call closed points of distribution or closed pods, and those will be given through hospitals to all of their employees or other big health care groups,” he said.

Q. You’ve said there is nothing wrong with being hesitant and thoughtful about this vaccine.

Dobbs: “There’s nothing wrong with being cautious. I certainly understand that people want to make sure everything looks good, and we do, too. We’re a lot more connected and see what’s going on behind the scenes. I think once it goes through the full review process without any shortcuts, I think we’ll feel pretty good about it. People who maybe want to wait and see a little bit – there will be a lot of doses administered before it gets to the general population, so everyone will have time to get a sense of what you’d see.”

Q: Will the vaccine be given to children?

Dobbs: “There will not be a formulation that is yet available for children.”

Q: How are the hospitals doing?

Dobbs: “It’s really tight. Please be careful. Be careful not only because we don’t want to spread coronavirus and overload the system, but be careful because there’s nowhere for you to go if you have a car wreck.”

Q: Will a new president in the White House change the way that Mississippi responds to COVID-19?

Byers: “I certainly think that there may be some changes, and I think that we’ve seen some directional changes already, but a lot of that remains to be seen, and we’re going to do our part in Mississippi. And the basic pieces that we need to continue to do are focusing on interruption of transmission and, when we get the vaccine, get the vaccine out to folks.”

True or False – People who are taking blood thinners have some protection from a more serious case of COVID.

Dobbs: “False. There will be people who do get blood clots related to COVID because it’s not just a lung disease, it’s a whole body disease. But you can still get severely ill, and we don’t have any good sense that that’s going to protect you from some of the bad outcomes.”

Q: How will the two-dose vaccination work?

Dobbs: “It will be a single shot and then three to four weeks later a second shot. A lot of our efforts and efforts of our partners are going to be to make sure that people get back for that second shot.”

Q: Is the state getting what it needs from the federal government to carry out the vaccinations?

Dobbs: “We will need some more support. We’ve gotten very minimal financial support for the personnel and stuff to pull this off. The other thing we’re going to need, for sure, is going to be ongoing support from the National Guard. They’ve been a fantastic asset. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done with the testing.”

Q: Are you confident in this vaccine?

Dobbs: “Before we come out in strong support of anything, we want to look at it ourselves and make sure we’ve seen all the data. Right now, I think things are looking very positive, and I would feel very comfortable giving it to myself and my family based on what we’ve seen so far.”

Q: Can you be reinfected with coronavirus?

Byers: “Potentially, yes. I think, in a number of circumstances, they have shown that people have been reinfected with a slightly different strain of the virus.”

Q: Is it safe for hospitals to let patients see their families?

Dobbs: “It can be done safely. The Department of Health doesn’t regulate or micromanage how that operates – it’s a hospital policy. But there are things that need to be done safely. You don’t want to have unrestricted visitation, people walking around.”

True or False – The Mississippi State Department of Health is responsible for enforcement of all COVID mandates.

Dobbs: “False. There are a lot of things we oversee – if it’s a nursing home or restaurants where we have regulatory authority, we do make sure they are working within the confines of the law and also the regulations. But the mask mandates are kind of outside our purview. We very much support them and push for them, but obviously we are not a law enforcement agency.”

True or False – There should be a lockdown in Mississippi.

Byers: “False. I think what we’ve demonstrated is we just need to do things safer – limit the number of gatherings, make sure that we are always wearing a mask in public, make sure that we are physically and socially distancing when we can, and quit getting into large groups unmasked.”

Q: Why not have a statewide mask mandate?

Dobbs: “We think everyone needs to wear a mask when they are around other people that are not their nuclear family. So, whatever is the best mechanism to achieve that, that’s what we support … We’ve heard a bunch of stories about when the mask mandate fell, people had the false impression that the risk was lower, and it wasn’t. And we’ve seen, especially in church congregations, big outbreaks because the churches let their guard down. We know that churches are a real dangerous sort of environment for spread because not only do you have a lot of people who don’t see each other all the time, but you have an intermixing of young and old, and it’s a real powder keg for outbreaks and deaths.”

Q: Is the state signing up physicians and pharmacies to get the vaccine?

Byers: “We are communicating with physicians, with hospitals, for them to do the sign-up to get the vaccine when we get it.”

Q: Is Thanksgiving canceled?

Dobbs: “We do recommend, the CDC does too, that we keep it tight, keep it small, keep it nuclear. Travel and big gatherings are a really bad idea.”

Byers: “Please don’t go to Black Friday. Don’t go to those big gatherings the day after Thanksgiving. That’s going to be a disaster of potential transmission. We can’t keep doing those big gatherings.”

and then being perpetually surprised at where the cases are coming from.”

Q: What about vitamin D, vitamin C and zinc?

Dobbs: “Vitamins are not going to protect you from coronavirus … I would encourage everyone to really look at the sources of information. I get a lot of people telling me about some great new cure, and it’s some exited person on a YouTube video, which is absolutely not science. We do know masks work. If we all do it together, there’s a force multiplier that makes all the difference. Why in the world does Taiwan, a country of 23 million people, only have a few hundred cases and a handful of deaths and a roaring economy? It’s because they’re wearing a mask and they’re not having social gatherings and they’re staying away from each other, other than when they’re working.”

Q: Is DeSoto County a major hot spot?

Dobbs: “DeSoto is on fire. It is red hot with cases. If I lived in DeSoto I wouldn’t go out. I would stay in my house as much as possible and be very, very careful, because the communities in DeSoto County are absolutely eat up with coronavirus.”

Byers: “When you embrace the mask mandate for those counties, I think we’ve demonstrated that you can see a pretty rapid decline in the number of cases.”

Liz Sharlot, MSDH communications director: “We do need law enforcement officials in DeSoto County to help us with this mask mandate so we can save lives. It should not be taken lightly.”

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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