While efforts are in motion to help people get vaccinated, Mississippi's vaccination rate still lags behind the nation's.

ITTA BENA — When the pandemic first hit and halted most university operations, faculty at Mississippi Valley State University found themselves with a fleet of unused transit buses that usually took students to and from class.

The unlikely scenario became an opportunity to innovate, though, especially once vaccines started to become available in Mississippi. 

“There are segments of our community that are underserved as far as having transportation. Some people don’t have transportation, period. Therefore, we thought this would be a good opportunity for us to provide something to help those citizens out, especially if people want to get the vaccine,” said Sonji Foster, project director for MVSU mass transit. 

So the mass transit operation at MVSU pivoted. Instead of sitting vacant while students attended virtual classes, transit buses started picking people up who needed a ride and taking them to designated vaccine locations. 

The concept was simple: once a person made an appointment to get the vaccine, they could call MVSU and arrange a ride. As long as the riders gave the transit system 24 hours notice, a transit bus would come pick the person up at whatever location they specified and bring them back home afterward. 

In Bolivar County, community activist Pam Chatman has been organizing similar efforts. Instead of utilizing university transit systems, Chatman has worked with local transportation agencies and philanthropic groups to arrange vaccination transportation for people who need it. 

Pam Chatman
Pam Chatman

Chatman advertises around the community that this service is available, which includes what number to call to get a ride. Once a person calls the number to the transportation agency and tells them they need a ride to get vaccinated, that ride is arranged at no cost to the rider. The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi made an initial contribution of $2,500 to this effort, which has helped fund the free rides.

While the Delta is not short on people working to solve the vaccination transportation issue, the barriers those organizers face are significant.

Part of the challenge is getting the word out. Because broadband internet and computer access is scarce in the Delta, people rely on churches, community groups and word of mouth to spread information.

But with COVID-19 causing church services to go virtual and group gatherings to diminish, information sharing has slowed.

“A huge barrier is that people seem to not know that we’re doing this. Places where people would normally gather to get the word out, those places are not gathering anymore right now,” Foster said.  

To her point, about 25 people have taken advantage of MSVU’s transit system since the opportunity was first announced in March. 

Chatman agreed that information access has been one of the barriers with helping people take advantage of the vaccination transportation system and with setting up appointments to get vaccinated at all.

“That’s why I say it’s so important that churches and community organizations get involved in spreading the word because there’s a lot of parts of Mississippi rural that do not have the computers or broadband to schedule an appointment,” Chatman said. 

Meanwhile, Mississippi’s vaccination rate has plummeted since peaking in late February. 

MSDH reported on Wednesday that 999,042 people in Mississippi — over 33% of the state’s population — have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 870,000 people have been fully inoculated since the state began distributing vaccines in December.

Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the share of its population that has been vaccinated, and the state’s vaccination rate has dropped nearly 75% from its peak in late February. Fewer than 1,000 Mississippians ages 12-15 received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in the week following its approval for that age group.

“We know that there is an issue, there is a concern,” Chatman said about vaccination access. “And so, it’s up to us as Mississippians to try all of us to help these people in rural areas.” 

Will Stribling contributed to this report.

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.