What May Happen Since Mississippi's Governor Has Lifted Most State COVID-19 Mandates
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Even though more Americans than ever are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, cases of the virus actually rose this week. The CDC warns of a fourth wave of coronavirus cases in the U.S. Despite that, many states still have loose or nonexistent restrictions. That includes the state of Mississippi, where Governor Tate Reeves lifted nearly all coronavirus mandates by executive order at the beginning of March. Joining us today to talk about how his state plans to move forward from this moment is Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer of Mississippi.
THOMAS DOBBS: Yeah, thank you for having me.
CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. I'm curious because when we spoke to you last June, you said that you did not anticipate your office letting up on any COVID restrictions for at least another year. That was last June. But at the beginning of this month, Governor Reeves lifted nearly all of the restrictions, including mask mandates other than being inside school buildings and in classrooms. What changed?
DOBBS: Well, you know, we have seen a pretty phenomenal improvement in our cases and in our deaths. And I know that the governor's perspective - one of the main targets was to make sure that we kept our hospital and our health care system from being overwhelmed. And I'll tell you, to be honest, we've been quite pleased to see around the community, most folks are wearing masks.
CHANG: Right. Well, I mean, it's not just concerns about this potential fourth wave. We spoke to an epidemiologist on our show yesterday who warned that a COVID-19 variant in Florida is even more transmissible than others. So with variants spreading and the likelihood of a fourth wave, again, should Mississippi go back to enforcing more mask wearing or impose other similar restrictions?
DOBBS: You know, probably not at this time. Obviously, it's something we watch very closely, and the governor has been pretty responsive whenever we're seeing new data that suggests things to be worried about. We still have a lot of communities that have masks mandates, and I think it makes sense in certain circumstances. We're really focused on this vaccination effort. We've been very successful getting our older folks, 65-plus, vulnerable people vaccinated, and really - just really trying to encourage everyone, regardless of age, when it's your turn to get vaccinated, please go ahead. It's our best path forward.
CHANG: Well, let's talk a little more about your vaccination program because data from the CDC says that almost something like 15% of Mississippians are fully vaccinated at this point. But some states that are similarly sized are doing a lot better than that. Connecticut, for example, has fully vaccinated almost 20% of its population, and they're doing way better than your state with one dose of the vaccination. So how do you get Mississippi's numbers higher?
DOBBS: It's going to take a little bit of time. There are some historical quirks about the timing of this, and we're a little bit behind because of the long-term care program, which really was a slow roll here. Basically, it sucked up all our vaccine for about three weeks before we could even start doing public vaccination. But, you know, ever since we started doing our public clinics, we've been gangbusters. We have over 1.2 million doses out. In a population of under 3 million, 800,000 people already have at least one dose. About 65% of our 65-plus age group is immunized, which is really good. And our nursing homes - our mortality in our cases in nursing homes are really dropping. So we're still really focusing on our high-risk groups.
And I tell you, our partnership's been phenomenal. Through our faith initiative partners, through our health equity team and Black community leaders, we've basically achieved, over the past three weeks, parity with our vaccination for African Americans - 37-plus% plus of the population of Mississippi is African American, and last week, 39% of our vaccine went to Black Mississippians.
CHANG: Well, can we talk about how politics come into play with vaccinations? Because Mississippi is a heavily Republican state, as we all know, and a recent national poll says that 49% of Republican men do not plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Does that concern you?
DOBBS: Of course, it concerns me. Wherever there's hesitancy, it's a major concern. You know, I'm from the South. A great deal of my family and friends are more on the right side of the spectrum. And we have these deep conversations. It's not a monolithic thing. And I've been really pleased that we've been able to have success. That same sort of hesitancy seemed to play out early on for African Americans, too. And through engaging faith leaders, community leaders, we've been able to do that, and we need to do that same thing with the rural white Mississippian.
CHANG: Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer of Mississippi, thank you very much for joining us today.
DOBBS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.