South Mississippi residents could win one of six $2,500 cash prizes for getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in Hattiesburg before Aug. 8. The initiative, spearheaded by the Hattiesburg Clinic and Forrest Health, is part of a citywide effort to boost flagging vaccination rates in Forrest and Lamar counties.
“For so long last year we waited. We sacrificed collectively, individually, through social-distancing measures and mask requirements. All those things were done while we waited for a vaccine. … While early vaccination numbers were encouraging, we have, however, in recent months come to a standstill,” Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker explained during a July 9, 2021, press conference with local health-care leaders. “… Everyone here believes in personal choice, but we also believe in personal responsibility.”
Hattiesburg is located in both Forrest and Lamar counties. Only 27% of Forrest County residents are fully vaccinated compared to 38% of Lamar County residents, the Mississippi State Department of Health reports. Statewide, 32% of residents are fully vaccinated.
“It is completely unnecessary for residents in our community to continue dying from coronavirus when there is a safe and effective vaccine available,” Barker said at the press conference earlier this month. “So our message continues to be: trust your doctor, trust the science and get your shot.”
The rules for the giveaway say it is “open to anyone ages 18 and up who has been vaccinated at a Hattiesburg Clinic or Forrest Health location, including the C.E. Roy Community Center (at 300 E. 5th Street in Hattiesburg) and William Carey University Student Health.” Winners, which will be announced during the week of Aug. 8, will include two patients, two Hattiesburg Clinic employees and two Forrest Health employees.
For The Unvaccinated: When, Not If
Over the weekend, city leaders also held a back-to-school vaccine clinic at the C.E. Roy Community Center where the first 200 to show up for a shot received a $25 gift card. The clinic welcomed anyone ages 12 and older on Saturday to get immunized. Participants were automatically entered for the $2,500 cash prize giveaways upon receiving their shots.
Between Saturday’s gift card giveaway and the August drawing, local organizations are giving as much as $20,000 away in an effort to entice more Mississippians to get vaccinated.
Hattiesburg City Councilwoman Deborah Delgado explained at the July 9 press conference that the event was a collaboration between Twin Forks Rising, a community-development corporation in her district, and the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a national nonprofit that aids disadvantaged communities.
Local leaders have pushed to close the gap as the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, which is causing a surge in cases and hospitalizations statewide, threatens to overwhelm the local health system.
“If you are unvaccinated, it’s not a matter of if you get COVID, but when you get COVID, how bad will it be and how many vulnerable people will you spread it to,” Dr. Jawauna Stewart said alongside doctors and other leaders at the July 9 press conference.
Many Children Suffer From ‘Long COVID’
Dr. Anita Henderson, a local pediatrician who also serves as president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, warned at the press conference that school reopenings in the coming weeks will pose significant risks.
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has reported in recent weeks that a number of children in the state are in intensive-care units, with some receiving life support on ventilators.
Still, children are far less likely to be hospitalized than adults, Dr. Henderson said during a July 16 interview with Mayor Barker during his weekly COVID-19 update livecast.
“However, we have found about 10-to-20 percent of children who recover from coronavirus are having what we call ‘long COVID’ or post-acute COVID symptoms, including fatigue or shortness of breath,” she said. “In particular, I’m seeing in my practice teenagers who are coming in having had COVID six months or nine months ago who are still having issues with shortness of breath. So parents, we want our kids to get back in school, and we want them to be there safely, so I just encourage them to be on the lookout for those issues and those symptoms related to coronavirus.”
Symptoms in children, Henderson said, usually come in the form of coughs, runny noses, fevers and sometimes “G.I. symptoms” or “rashes and then fatigue.” Younger children do not usually lose their sense of taste or smell, she said; those symptoms are more likely to manifest in adolescents and teenagers.
“We know that when school starts we will see more and more children contracting coronavirus,” the pediatrician said on July 9. Hattiesburg Public School students will return to classes on Aug. 9.
Low Vaccination Rates Among Eligible Children
Unlike last year, Gov. Tate Reeves has said he does not plan to mandate masks in public schools for the 2021-2022 school year. Individual school districts could still decide to require masks in schools, however.
“The fact is, every single Mississippian has had an opportunity to get the vaccine,” the Daily Journal reported Reeves saying last week as he explained why he was not going to mandate masks in schools or introduce other COVID-19 mitigation measures amid the Delta surge. “There are some who have chosen not to. I encourage them to do so.”
Reeves’ remark was incorrect, however, because it ignored the fact that children under 12 and some immunocompromised cannot get the vaccine. In Barker’s July 16 livecast discussion with Henderson, he asked whether she believes children should continue wearing masks in schools.
“Our recommendation as pediatricians, our recommendations as the (American Academy of Pediatrics) and the (Centers for Disease Control) is that if you are not vaccinated, you continue to wear masks indoors. That is going to be the best way to protect your child from spreading coronavirus or contracting coronavirus,” the pediatrician said.
Masks were important for mitigating viral spread in schools last year and could still be an important tool at a time when vaccines are still not available for children under 12.
“We have gotten word that we potentially might have a vaccine available down to the age of 2 in September, and so that would be fantastic news,” Henderson told Barker on July 16. She told the Mississippi Free Press this evening, however, that new indications suggest the vaccine will not become available for small children until “mid-winter” sometime.
“We have so many families who are very interested in getting their children vaccinated,” Henderson said on July 16. “They may have children who are asthmatic or immunocompromised. We have parents with children who have cancer and are on chemotherapy, and they are concerned with sending their kids back to school in-person right now.
“But having a vaccine available for those children, for the children around them, for their schools, would be a huge benefit for them. … However, we have it down to 12 right now, and not everybody is utilizing that. Unfortunately, only about 6% of Mississippi children age 12-15 are fully vaccinated.”
‘Talk To People’
The mayor asked Henderson if she had any advice for combating misinformation about the vaccine, expressing frustration over the “unnecessary hospitalizations and ICU admissions and deaths” that continue in his city despite the presence of a free, effective, widely available vaccine. The pediatrician suggested town halls, discussions between patients and physicians, and an emphasis on the fact that “we have given over 180 million doses of Pfizer in the United States, and the safety profile has been excellent.”
People should also share their stories about getting vaccinated, she said.
“If you have been vaccinated, and you have a good story, share it with someone. Talk to people one-on-one about your experience. And I think that is how we combat misinformation,” Henderson said.
Since vaccinations began, public-health officials have struggled to convince younger and healthier people to get vaccinated. But despite the fact that the back-to-school vaccine clinic over the weekend was open to anyone age 12 or older, Henderson told WDAM that the crowd that showed up on Saturday skewed younger than those at previous clinics—a positive sign.
Vaccine data suggest the incentives could be providing an overall boost in Lamar and Forrest counties. Forrest County reported an additional 489 people receiving at least one dose of the vaccine between July 9 and July 19, while Lamar County reported 596 doses during the same period. For both counties, the number of doses administered since the giveaway announcement was the highest for any 10-day period since May.
The number of people receiving at least one dose of the vaccine was up 35% over the prior week in Forrest County and up 49% in Lamar County. Statewide, vaccinations are up 18% since last week.