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‘37,000 A Week, That’s It’: Without New Vaccines, Supply Would Take 57 Weeks to Reach All Mississippians

Vaccinations at the current rate, with the 37,000 Pfizer and Moderna first doses available to Mississippi each week, would take over a year to fully vaccinate the state. Photo courtesy UMMC

Mississippi is set to receive 37,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine each week, mostly intended for Mississippi State Department of Health drive-through clinics, putting a long road ahead of the effort to reach herd immunity through vaccination. At that vaccination rate, it would take roughly 57 weeks to fully vaccinate the population of the state, just over a year and a month in all.

At a press event late last Friday, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs explained that supply is allocated and delivered as it arrives each week. “We don’t have a stockpile of vaccine—we’re using it real time,” he said. Mississippi’s vaccination rate is thus dependent on new supply, not stored vials.

Census estimates from 2019 peg Mississippi’s over-18 population at 2,276,754 people. Subtracting the 163,471 first-dose vaccinations already delivered, the task ahead of Mississippi is to vaccinate 2,113,283 individuals. 

This timeline has one immediate problem—vaccine providers Pfizer and Moderna have asserted that the vaccination should last at least a year. It is possible that the antibodies the vaccines generate will last longer than that, but if the lower estimates are correct, Mississippi’s currently anticipated rate of vaccination may run into waning immunity for those who first receive their shots before everyone has had the shot.

State health leadership does not expect the Pfizer and Moderna supply to radically increase. “I don’t think there’s gonna be a lot more. We get 37,000 (first doses) a week. That’s it,” Dobbs said Friday.

Millions of Missing Vaccinations?

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs speaks with Mississippi State Medical Association leadership, explaining that Mississippi’s current vaccinations are based on available Pfizer and Moderna doses, with the initial supply outpacing the current weekly allotments. Photo courtesy MSDH

Compounding concerns of limited incoming vaccine supply, the Biden administration is reportedly scrambling to uncover millions of missing doses, likely lost in the nation’s labyrinthine delivery system. 

MSDH has complained in recent weeks that the state has received fewer doses than anticipated. At present, there is no way to confirm the source of the delays and reports of smaller-than-expected allocations, but the two stories may well be related.

Still, the total rate of vaccination could rise significantly—not based on an uptick in supply of the two currently approved vaccinations, but due to a rollout of additional vaccine options. MSDH leadership has highlighted AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, currently in the final stages of their clinical testing processes, as potential breakthroughs in vaccine supply.

Both pharmaceutical companies paused their clinical trials late last year to investigate medical episodes in the testing population. Both vaccines were judged unrelated to the three illnesses that occurred among the trial’s thousands of participants.

Approval and manufacture of the new vaccines, which medical observers expect around the end of January, could provide the boost to supply necessary to rapidly increase the lengthy timetable between the state and full vaccination.

First Sign of Recovery in State

As the vaccine rollout reaches its capacity, the state is beginning to show the first signs of recovery from the devastating holiday surge. Today, the Mississippi State Department of Health announced 927 new cases of COVID-19, the first report of under 1,000 cases since prior to Thanksgiving, barring a single case of artificially low reporting on Christmas Day.

While the low report is a weekend number, likely to be surpassed this week, State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers confirmed that there was broader evidence of a positive trend in new cases. “You can see that it looks like there’s a bit of flattening in the rise of both deaths and number of cases … perhaps even a little bit of a downward trend,” Byers said Friday.

The downward trend is well-reflected in the seven-day average of new cases, which peaked on Jan. 10 at a staggering 2,401. With today’s low report, that average has dropped to 1,602—still a critical mass of new cases, but hopefully a sign that the largest surge in the pandemic so far is leveling off. Hospitalizations and deaths will lag behind the new numbers, but if the downward trend continues, those metrics will decline as well. 

New COVID-19 Variants Emerging

The B.1.1.7 variant, which has driven mass transmission in the United Kingdom, has already been detected in a number of states in the U.S. Photo courtesy CDC

Looming above the virus and vaccination effort in the state is a growing body of evidence that new mutations in the structure of COVID-19 could threaten natural immunity from infections, and possibly even escape the presently available vaccines.

Multiple new variants are currently known, including the well-publicized B117 variant that has caused so much havoc in the United Kingdom. B117 is a more highly contagious variant of COVID-19, capable of overtaking less infectious strains and causing declining numbers to skyrocket once more.

Even more worrisome to medical officials is South Africa’s B1351, a variant that has shown mutations in the spike protein that is key to the vaccine’s protective effects. More research is necessary, professionals say, to identify how these new variants will interact with vaccines, and whether or not the changes to the spike proteins will allow them to escape the vaccines entirely.

If B1351 or other COVID-19 variants prove resistant to the presently available vaccines, . Small modifications to the vaccines in the form of booster shots could provide full protection against new strains without the long process of redesigning and retesting the entire vaccine.

Moderna has already released a statement indicating it is seeking testing for a booster shot that could address the dangerous new variants. How fast and far they might spread still remains to be seen.

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