Biology teacher Chiquita Gaylor and students practice social distancing in the classroom at Jefferson County High School in Fayette. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Tuesday that teachers and first responders in Mississippi can begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines starting on March 1.

The expanded eligibility includes all K-12 school, preschool and daycare employees, who can begin scheduling open vaccine appointments on Feb. 23. It does not include college educators or employees.

“This is exciting news for people who are working hard to keep our schools open and our streets safe,” Reeves said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported on Monday that 341,102 people in Mississippi — about 12% of the state’s population — have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. About 145,941 people have received both doses since the state began distributing vaccines in December.

As vaccine eligibility increases, COVID-19 cases and deaths continue their dramatic decline in Mississippi — an encouraging sign after a brutal winter spike that set new records for both statistics.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 348 new COVID-19 cases of COVID-19 and 24 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday. This brings Mississippi to a total of 291,222 coronavirus cases and 6,577 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

January saw the most coronavirus-related deaths in a single month in Mississippi, with 1,240 confirmed. The state also set new single-day records for new cases: 3,255 cases on Jan. 7, and 98 deaths on Jan. 12.

Additionally, the number of COVID-19 cases, COVID-related hospital admissions and clinic visits for COVID-19 like illnesses in Mississippi have been trending sharply downward in 2021.

Mask mandates are currently in effect in 75 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. State health officials encourage widespread masking and credit the original statewide mandate issued by Gov. Tate Reeves on Aug. 4 with helping cases improve after a sharp summer spike. Reeves ended the statewide mask mandate on Sept. 30, but has since issued orders for the individual counties.

Last week’s winter storm caused many across the state to have to postpone vaccination appointments as drive-thru clinics and county health departments closed due to hazardous weather conditions.

MAP: Mississippi’s COVID-19 vaccine locations

All of the MSDH drive-thru vaccination appointments that were canceled due to the closures have been automatically rescheduled for some day this week at the same time as the initial appointment. As a result, MSDH drive-thru clinics will be vaccinating a much higher number of people than usual this week. A MSDH spokesperson confirmed that no vaccine doses expired over the course of last week’s closures. 

Will Stribling covers healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.