Dr. John Witcher, a Yazoo City emergency-room physician and general practitioner, has treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients over the past year. He is also unvaccinated for the virus and the leader of a small band of Mississippi health-care workers in their campaign against vaccine mandates under the umbrella of “Mississippi Against Vaccine Mandates.”
“We want to stop vaccine mandates. It’s just that simple. And we’re calling on Gov. Reeves to help us here. There’s a lot of fear mongering going on around the state,” Witcher said in a YouTube video announcing the group’s formation on Sept. 12. “There’s the Mississippi State Health Department and the Mississippi State Medical Association; they’re pushing that everybody needs to be vaccinated.”
The group, which includes several health-care workers across the state, has erected billboards and is using social media to push its message, which includes anti-vaccine misinformation. A graphic on the group’s website includes the photos and names of seven male doctors across the state, including two radiologists, a family medicine specialist, an internal medicine specialist and an emergency medicine specialist. They are a minority, however; a June survey found that 96% of doctors nationwide had been vaccinated for COVID-19.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is now requiring health-care workers and students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to continue in employment or enrollment; other hospitals in the state have similarly begun requiring vaccination for employees.
But despite suggestions of Dr. Witcher and his group, neither the Mississippi State Department of Health nor the Mississippi State Medical Association has pushed for broad COVID-19 vaccine mandates. During a Sept. 4 MSMA roundtable discussion, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said he does not currently support mandating COVID-19 vaccines among eligible K-12 schoolchildren even though the State requires them to receive other vaccines.
“Not right now for a host of reasons,” said Dobbs, who leads MSDH. “We just have got the FDA approval. There is no consensus amongst the populace that that’s the right way to go. Could we get there eventually? Perhaps, but at this moment in time, it’s probably not the right way to go.”
Dobbs is generally a strong proponent of vaccination and has faced death threats in recent months from anti-vaccine groups; he also weathered resistance from Gov. Tate Reeves, who refused to take his advice to mandate face masks in public schools.
‘It’s Ostracizing Us And It’s Not Fair’
In his video message, Witcher expresses disdain at the state’s public-health experts and other health leaders for their pro-vaccine message, mandate qualms aside.
“They’re saying that the solution to our COVID pandemic is that everybody needs to get vaccinated. This is a belief they may have, but this is not fact,” Witcher said in the YouTube video. “And to push that agenda on people that don’t want to be vaccinated, we want Gov. Reeves to put a stop to this. Basically, some of the leaders say that the simple solution is just for everybody to be vaccinated and that the truth of the matter is we’re going to have people dying daily and continuing and it’s all because of the unvaccinated.
“That’s shaming people like myself that don’t want to be vaccinated, it’s ostracizing us, and it’s not fair. We want to be treated with respect and dignity,” Witcher continued. “I personally don’t know the risk involved with the COVID vaccination. I know some of our leaders in the Mississippi State Health Department report that it’s super-duper safe, but I don’t necessarily believe that. The reports I read, it looks like risks involved to me. So I can’t, as a physician, my primary hope is to do no harm, so I can’t recommend that to my patients based on, I don’t know the risk, and I can’t give them the risk.”
But Witcher could know the risks and share information about them with his patients if he simply read reports from medical scientists who, in some cases for over a year, have studied the COVID-19 vaccines and their side effects. Study after study has found that serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines are extremely rare.
As of Aug. 13, Mississippi had reported just four mild cases of myocarditis among COVID-19 vaccine recipients who recovered, but no deaths tied to the vaccines. At least 9,331 Mississippians have died from COVID-19 so far, though. This month, Mississippi passed early pandemic hotspots New York and New Jersey to become No. 1 in the nation for COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Unvaccinated Mississippians account for 98% of all residents hospitalized for COVID-19 since Aug. 24, 2021.
Unvaccinated Account for 98% of 2021 COVID Deaths
Witcher’s group has already held anti-vaccine rallies in the state and plans to hold several more in the coming weeks, although it has not yet announced the locations on its website. During his video message, Witcher said his religious beliefs help inform his opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“This isn’t about me, I’m just a messenger. This is something that I feel called to do, I feel led to do, because I just can’t take any more of this fear mongering amongst Mississippians that just keep pushing and pushing that the COVID vaccination is the solution and there’s no risk involved,” he said. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think anybody can push that as fact. So I’m standing up, and I have a lot of other people standing up who don’t want a vaccination.”
But the results show that vaccinated Mississippians are significantly less likely to contract COVID-19, and even if they do, they are far less likely to be hospitalized or die with the illness. Since January, when Mississippi vaccinations began in earnest, fully vaccinated Mississippians have accounted for less than 2% of all cases diagnosed; 9% of hospitalizations for COVID-19; and 7% of all COVID-19 deaths.
At least 4,064 Mississippians have died since Jan. 1, only 280 of which were fully vaccinated, with the vast majority of those deaths occurring among people who are over 50. Among the 456 Mississippians younger than 50 who died of COVID-19 since January, only 11 were fully vaccinated.
Since the year began, 180 of the 181 Mississippians younger than 40 who died of COVID-19 were either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. No fully vaccinated Mississippians younger than 25 have died of COVID-19. All five children who have died of COVID-19 this year so far, including one baby, were unvaccinated. The death toll includes at least 15 pregnant women who died of COVID-19.
‘I’m A Man Of God And I’m Not Ashamed’
In his video message, Witcher called on doctors, nurses and other health care workers to join him to “show Gov. Tate Reeves our support.”
“I appreciate you, Gov. Reeves, and your Bible studies that you were doing in the past. I believe you’re a man of God, I’m a man of God. I’m not ashamed of that,” Witcher said.
Gov. Reeves is vaccinated and has repeatedly stated that he believes the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, but that he does not want to tell Mississippians to get vaccinated. He has earned plaudits from anti-vaccine groups in recent weeks for his opposition to President Joe Biden’s plan to mandate vaccines for businesses with more than 100 employees.
“I have my Bible with me and I live on the word of God. So I believe Gov. Reeves, I believe you want to do the right thing and your constituents want you to do the right thing, we believe in you and we’re backing you,” Witcher said in the video. “We just want you to say no COVID vaccine mandates, certainly not in the hospitals. … A lot of us want to work, we’re here, but we don’t want to be mandated to take a vaccine that we don’t know the risk of. So that’s our plea, we want everybody to come join us, any politicians out there who have the same beliefs, pastors, business owners, other organizations.”
The vast majority of doctors and medical organizations in the state support and encourage Mississippians to get vaccinated for COVID-19. The Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure has warned that it could suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors who spread COVID-19 misinformation.