President Joe Biden has declared a vaccination “National Month of Action” to get the U.S. to herd immunity against COVID-19, alongside a slew of public health initiatives to close the remaining vaccine gap in the country.
Initiatives the Biden administration touts include free child care for individuals getting vaccinated through a partnership with KinderCare, Learning Care Group, YMCA and Bright Horizons, as well as extended hours at certain pharmacies across the nation including Albertsons, CVS, Rite-Aid and Walgreens.
Though the White House is attempting to address access disparities preventing Americans from getting vaccinated, as of yet there appears to be little coordination between the federal government and the State of Mississippi in connecting the new benefits with regional communicators.
In a statement, Mississippi State Department of Health Communications Director Liz Sharlot confirmed to the Mississippi Free Press that no direct communication between the White House Coronavirus Task Force and MSDH on the subject of vaccine incentives has taken place. The extent of the coordination remains a routine bulletin the task force shared with the agency mentioning incentives.
Mississippi is conspicuously absent from some of the Biden administration’s month of action plans—for example, the “Mayors Challenge,” a competition to grow vaccine rates in cities across the United States. Mayors from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama are already included in the challenge—but not Mississippi.
Mississippi In Last Place
Mississippi, firmly entrenched in last place in the nation with only a third of its population vaccinated, is a prime candidate for initiatives to improve the rate of vaccinations. Already, the one-week bump in new shots from the adolescent authorization has evaporated, with new shots in the last week of May tumbling to a low of 28,487. That is fewer than in weeks in which drive-through clinics were mostly closed due to severe weather.
As of June 3, this week’s vaccinations were an abysmal 9,347, suggesting that Mississippi’s vaccine demand is dwindling to rock-bottom levels, despite two out of three residents of the state still being unvaccinated.
In an attempt to shore up flattening vaccine numbers, some states are beginning the process of “vaccine lotteries,” in which vaccinated residents of the state can enter to win millions of dollars in cash prizes, alongside other material rewards.
Mississippi has yet to pursue physical enticements for the vaccine-neutral, though the state health agency has highlighted some of the national incentives, like free Uber and Lyft rides to and from vaccine sites.
Yet a New York Times study in May found that financial enticements could be more effective in Mississippi than in any other state. A survey of unvaccinated Americans found that Mississippi had the highest proportion of “cost anxious” holdouts of any state in the nation.
“The Cost-Anxious worry about the time and potential expense of getting vaccinated (even if it is actually free),” the article explains.
Just under one in four Mississippians surveyed expressed concerns over the time or financial expense of vaccination, suggesting that supporting ease of access to vaccination sites, as well as other benefits like a paid day off to recover from the side effects of the vaccine could be more effective in the Magnolia State than anywhere else in the U.S.
“The Mississippi State Department of Health supports efforts to make vaccine available and encourages people to take them,” Sharlot told the Mississippi Free Press in a statement. “The COVID vaccines are safe and highly effective. We especially want to encourage those over 50 to get vaccinated if they have not already.”
The marked slowdown in new vaccinations may be due in part to a positive side-effect of the vaccination effort thus far: dwindling case counts. The historic lull in new cases blanketing the U.S. has left the state in its least infectious stage of the pandemic since before last summer’s surge. With fewer than 200 new cases daily, the pandemic may be out of sight and mind for many Mississippians.
But experts suggest that a state like Mississippi, with a majority of residents still unvaccinated, could be a dangerous hotspot for a new surge of highly infectious variant cases among those not protected with a vaccine.
Just today, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told CNN that states like Mississippi, with significantly fewer than the national-average vaccinations, were “sitting ducks for the next outbreak of Covid-19—which shouldn’t have to happen now.”
MSDH data suggest that Mississippi’s success at vaccinating many of its oldest residents will protect the stability of its hospital system, but a surge among unvaccinated adults could still be deadly to many, and cause numerous long-term health consequences even for those who recover.
As Biden’s month of action continues, it remains to be seen if the federal government will pursue more explicit partnerships with statewide and municipal leadership in Mississippi—the state that needs them the most.