Increasingly, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs reflects the wearied anger of the entire medical profession when he addresses the public. “I’m mad,” he told the press at a Mississippi State Department of Health press event on Tuesday.” I’m upset—depressed—because we’re going to watch people needlessly die over the next month or two for no good reason.”
His words came only one day before a painful new milestone in the long-predicted delta variant surge. Today, MSDH announced 961 new cases of COVID-19, a return to the numbers that overwhelmed the hospital system last winter. Long-term care facility outbreaks rose to 57, the inevitable consequence of rampant community spread and a mostly unvaccinated cohort of health-care workers.
Mississippi, which has had public, open and free access to an incredibly effective COVID-19 vaccine for months now, still faces a deadly summer. The state health officer blames vaccine denialists and disinformation artists on social media. “There is a mountain of lies and disinformation that is being promulgated by a relatively small number of misinformed, disillusioned people,” Dobbs ranted. “And it’s leading folks astray.”
This came as part of a clear non-apology for his earlier rant on “anti-science nazis” on Facebook, who continually express bizarre and outlandish claims about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.
The pandemic is now, in large part, a pandemic of the unvaccinated. MSDH numbers show that new cases are massively skewed toward the unvaccinated, with 93% of new diagnoses coming from individuals who have yet to receive both shots. Hospitalizations and deaths show a similar tilt. As the virus, now twice as infectious, races through an unvaccinated population with no safety protocols or mandates to speak of, public-health officials seem lost for solutions to this new surge, other than to simply beg Mississippians to get vaccinated.
“We’re going to have a rough few weeks. Delta is hitting us very strongly. We anticipate that we’re going to continue to put additional pressure on the health-care system,” Dobbs said. “Thirteen hospitals in the state of Mississippi have zero ICU beds. Significantly more have less than 10% capacity. We are having to fly patients from the Delta to the Pine Belt to get care,” he added, a reference to those tortured transfer patterns of the high pandemic.
“A week ago we had less than 10 long-term care facility infections. Now we’re looking at over 50,” Dobbs continued. Individuals like those in LTCs represent the most vulnerable in the state: those whose weakened conditions make them susceptible to serious breakthrough infections, threatening their lives even though they are vaccinated.
“All of the deaths in vaccinated individuals are in those over 65, many with pre-existing conditions,” Dobbs said. “We are seeing evidence of a lack of immune response in individuals who are immunocompromised.”
For some, a booster shot may be warranted. Public-health officials have encouraged older and immunocompromised individuals to speak with their doctors to see if they need to consider a booster dose.
As the delta surge worsens, public-health officials spoke out in support of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s vaccine mandate.
Dr. Daniel Edney, joining MSDH for their press event, spoke first. “Physicians and other health-care workers providing direct patient care have an ethical responsibility to protect their patients,” Edney said in support of UMMC’s vaccine mandate. “And for me, that includes protecting them against me giving them COVID, protecting them from me getting COVID in one healthcare setting and taking it to another, which we have seen.”
Dobbs affirmed MSDH’s support of UMMC’s vaccine mandate and encouraged other health-care settings and businesses to follow suit, with MSDH’s assistance.
“We do think this is going to be an effective way to help protect their staff and patients,” Dobbs said. “These sorts of things are not really uncommon, pretty routine for infectious diseases such as hepatitis B or for measles or influenza, tuberculosis, those sorts of things. So this fits well into the longstanding infection-control practices that are of paramount importance for health-care settings. Court rulings have validated this.”
As another interminable wave of COVID-19 rises, stricter measures and a redoubled effort to vaccinate the state may prove the only way through.