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Mississippi Expands Vaccine Access, But ‘Red Tape’ Delays Long-Term Care Vaccinations

Mississippi has expanded vaccination availability to those 65 and older, or adults with pre-existing conditions. But bizarrely specific staffing requirements have prevented significant amounts of the allocated vaccine from reaching patients. Here, Dr. Rambod Ruhbakhsh receives his first dose of vaccine. Photo courtesy Hattiesburg Clinic

Mississippians age 65 or older and those 18 or older with pre-existing conditions may now schedule a COVID-19 vaccination, putting access ahead of schedule as the State looks to rapidly improve its vaccine rollout. Whether supplies of the vaccine and delivery of the doses can keep pace with the rapid new schedule remains to be seen.

At the same time, hearings in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee revealed that the state’s long-term care facilities are dramatically behind schedule on resident vaccinations, with only 3,721 doses administered out of a first-dose allocation of 78,000. That lag has severely hampered Mississippi’s vaccination efforts, with State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs estimating that, compared to Mississippi, neighboring Louisiana and Alabama have vaccinated four to five times as many residents per capita.

The news comes as Mississippi again breaks its all-time record for highest COVID-19 deaths reported in a single day. MSDH reported that 98 Mississippians lost their lives to complications of COVID-19 today, with 1,648 new cases coming at the same time.

Now Available to Those with Underlying Conditions

Mississippi’s new vaccine plan follows a more limited rollout to health-care providers and Mississippians 75 and older. The new standards for vaccine availability likely guarantee an ongoing supply of residents seeking vaccination: underlying medical conditions include a broad spectrum of conditions, from cancer and diabetes to smoking and obesity. 

Gov. Tate Reeves announced today that Mississippians 65 and older, as well as Mississippians 18 and older with underlying conditions, may now schedule their vaccinations for COVID-19. Photo courtesy State of Mississippi

The Mississippi State Department of Health states that “other medical conditions” described by medical providers as qualifying conditions will allow those aged 18-64 to access the vaccine beginning immediately.

Vaccine appointments may be scheduled at private clinics with vaccine allocations by calling 601-965-4071 or 877-978-6453, or by visiting here. As of press time, all available appointment options were overloaded from excessive use, but both Dobbs and Reeves encouraged Mississippians to keep trying to schedule the necessary vaccinations.

As the vaccination process broadens, Gov. Tate Reeves held a press event today to highlight the expanding availability and increasing pace of vaccinations. “Today, I’m happy to come before you and share some of the progress we’ve made,” Reeves said. “To date,” he added,” we have done 62,744 vaccinations. That’s over the last four weeks. You may recall a week ago I said we’d done over 20,000. So we’ve more than doubled output last week alone.”

But while MSDH-run drive-thru clinics are rapidly increasing their reach across the state, long-term care facility vaccinations are falling significantly behind. 

LTC Vaccinations ‘Reflecting Poorly on Our State’

Mississippi is subject to a federal contract placing private corporations Walgreens and CVS in charge of vaccinating LTC staff and residents. No population is more at risk of complications from COVID-19. As of Jan. 12, 1,791 of the state’s 5,284 deaths had occurred in long-term care facilities. 

Yet, the vaccination delivery method to long-term care facilities is presently the least advanced. “Some of them are using hospital allocations for their long-term care residents because they’re tired of waiting,” Dobbs said at the committee hearing today. For comparison, the state health officer estimated that MSDH has delivered more than 40% of its received doses through its drive-thru clinics.

Walgreens representative Roy Armstrong, regional health-care director, did not have concrete numbers of how many allocated doses the companies had actually received for the vaccination of Mississippi’s long-term care facilities. But he estimated that they were already in possession of around “30,000 to 35,000 doses,” meaning roughly 10% have been administered to LTC patients so far.

“It’s obviously a pretty low percentage. … It’s reflecting poorly on our state,” Dobbs said.

Remarkably, the primary roadblock in the delivery of the vaccines is not a lack of access to supply, but an inability to find enough Walgreens and CVS staff members capable of administering the shot.

Deaths in long-term care facilities alone account for 1,791 of the state’s 5,284 deaths, and yet the vaccination effort in these facilities is lagging behind for lack of staff allowed under the terms of the federal contract.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, pressed corporate representation on the holdup, seemingly baffled by the insistence that simple staffing shortages explained the delay. 

“We’re sending vaccine to Walgreens and CVS, who say they cannot get people to do the vaccinations,” Bryan said. “(But) the state’s crawling with people who will do the vaccinations and can’t get the vaccine. Why don’t we just deliver it to nursing homes? There will be somebody there to administer the vaccine. They’ve got pharmacists in their town. They’ve got nurses there.”

Brooke Tiner, CVS/Aetna senior director of government relations, explained that the contract was written explicitly to prohibit such a solution. “The bottom-line answer is that under the federal partnership program, the vaccines in the long-term care facilities that have selected us and Walgreens can only be administered by our staff, she said.

Monday’s hearing was lethargic, at times painful. Dobbs, tight-lipped, acknowledged that some nursing homes were not scheduled to receive their first dose of vaccine until Feb. 11, still a month away—though the corporate representatives present agreed that this timeline could be sped up with the hiring of additional personnel. 

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the lagging vaccination push in the state’s long-term care facilities, suggesting that the state may take over the effort if rapid progress fails to materialize. Photo courtesy MSDH

Few solutions emerged for breaking the gridlock holding the LTC vaccination effort out. One option remains: Mississippi may choose to disenroll certain LTCs from the Walgreens/CVS plan, reclaim their allocated doses of vaccine, and deliver them directly, potentially circumventing the excruciating waiting game ahead.

Dobbs acknowledged that the personnel issues plaguing the LTC vaccination effort surprised him, but that solutions were in the works.

“We’re disappointed they didn’t have folks ready to roll. That they’re trying to hire right now and not earlier,” Dobbs told the Mississippi Free Press at today’s press event. “We’re trying to find ways to get the vaccine back, or even … have them do the delivery and the logistics. The nurses in the nursing homes can give the vaccine.”

The mood of disappointment lingered in the air at the committee hearing. 

“You’re on mute,” an attendee informed Dr. Dobbs late in the hearing, as he attempted to speak over Zoom. “Yeah, forgive me,” he replied. “That’s the statement of the year, right?”

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