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‘Fresh Air Smells Sweeter Without Masks’: Jill Biden Visits Jackson To Urge Vaccinations

Jill Biden
Dr. Jill Biden, the first lady of the United States joined Mississippi political leadership on June 22, 2021, at a Jackson State University vaccination site, calling for increased enthusiasm for vaccinations in the state currently trailing the nation in new shots. Photo by Nick Judin

Dr. Jill Biden has joined Mississippi’s effort to bolster its struggling vaccination campaign, visiting a vaccination site at Jackson State University today and encouraging the public to protect themselves and their community with shots.

“The vaccines may feel like a miracle, but there’s no faith required. They’re the result of decades of rigorous scientific research and discovery,” Biden said. The first lady’s visit comes toward the end of a stagnant June—the Mississippi State Department of Health identified June as the worst month for new vaccinations since the widespread availability of the mRNA vaccines came to Mississippi.

Biden spoke to some newly vaccinated patients, and thanked medical staff attending to the vaccine site for helping pull the nation’s infection rate lower and lower.

Jill Biden
Dr. Jill Biden stressed the safety and immense research behind the mRNA vaccines. “While the vaccines might be new, the science behind them is not new at all. Scientists have been working on this type of vaccine for years now,” she said at Jackson State University on June 22, 2021. Photo by Nick Judin

But the overall trajectory of vaccination in Mississippi is grim despite the consistent availability of new doses. On average, Mississippi has delivered just under 25,000 new doses each week this month, including both first and second doses. The state is still dead last in the race to full vaccination.

COVID-19 cases, too, are in a deep trough, down to the lowest lull since the earliest days of the pandemic. Experts uniformly credit the hard-won success to a nation that is increasingly vaccinated day by day.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there—people have a lot of questions. They ask, is it safe? Was it created too fast, was it tested enough?” Biden said today. “I asked the experts. And while the vaccines might be new, the science behind them is not new at all. Scientists have been working on this type of vaccine for years now.”

Biden lamented the low vaccination rate in the Magnolia State, reminding residents that the shot was for the vulnerable and the healthy alike. “We take care of our needy. We take care of our friends,” she said.

Only days earlier, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs expanded on the value of healthy young Mississippians getting vaccinated even if they do not personally believe themselves to be at major risk from the virus. “Transplant patients, cancer patients and people on dialysis do not respond as well to COVID vaccine,” Dobbs wrote. “This is a ‘love thy neighbor’ moment.”

Biden reflected on a year of anxious quarantine, already receding into the past thanks to widespread national vaccination. 

“It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. Just think about one year ago. Do you remember how quiet the streets were? Do you remember the empty grocery-store aisles?” Biden asked. The educator described the uncertainty and solitude of 2020 as a memory worth preserving, a warning for future generations. “We can’t lose how that felt. We have to tell our kids. We have to tell our grandkids.”

Biden closed with the simplest case for the shot of all. “The fresh air smells so much sweeter without a mask,” she said.

‘We’re Learning Our Way Through’

Joining Biden to encourage Mississippians to get their shot were U.S. Rep Bennie Thompson and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. Both spoke with the Mississippi Free Press about the push toward herd immunity against COVID-19—and where the government could do more to help.

Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democratic congressional representative, called on Gov. Tate Reeves to take advantage of federal money available for vaccination drives. “As you know, FEMA is providing 100% reimbursement for any monies spent toward COVID vaccination,” he said. 

Bennie Thompson and Chokwe Lumumba
U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba joined Dr. Jill Biden in her speech on June 22, 2021, acknowledging to the Mississippi Free Press in later interviews that more could be done to provide incentives and financial protection for those getting vaccinated. Photo by Nick Judin

Thompson had specifics in mind. “We could design programs to provide transportation. We could provide childcare. Any impediment in getting vaccinated. At the federal level, we are prepared to work with states and localities to do it,” he said. “I encourage Reeves to do it. Being 50th in vaccinations is not something we can brag on.”

Thompson acknowledged that Biden’s original goal of 70% adult vaccination nationwide by July 4 was unlikely, given the current sluggish rates. “I think that’s optimistic,” he said.

Faced with Mississippi’s low rate of vaccination, and evidence that financial insecurity was a major contributor to the state’s low numbers, Mayor Lumumba was candid about the challenges ahead. “We’re learning our way through this pandemic,” he said. “Perhaps the next step is to meet with employers so that we make it convenient for them—whether that’s (vaccination clinics) at job sites or time off that employers can provide to Mississippians to get vaccinated.”

Still, with case numbers dwindling, and the hope for normalcy ahead, Lumumba intends to keep the lessons of the pandemic in mind. 

“This pandemic hasn’t come to exploit anyone—merely revealed where they were already disproportionately (exploited) … we have to leave this pandemic with a greater resolve of how we can improve economic mobility and our community. In 2021, access to health care has to be the preeminent fight that we have.”

Beyond the concrete plans for incentives and greater information, Biden’s visit was a plea for vaccinations as a means to reconnect communities. “Here in Mississippi, only 35% of people are vaccinated,” Biden said. “That’s just not enough.”

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