The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 641 new COVID-19 cases on July 14, further documenting the hold the Delta variant has on the state. Just one week ago, MSDH reported 427 new cases, which was the largest single-day caseload seen since March.

Over the past three weeks, the number of confirmed Delta cases in Mississippi has increased nearly sevenfold, up from 29 to 231. Those 231 cases only represent a small surveillance sample, so it is undoubtedly a small fraction of the Delta infections in the state. 

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has repeatedly stressed that Mississippians have the choice of getting vaccinated or contracting COVID-19, and that in every scenario a vaccinated person is going to have a better outcome.

“At this pace, and given the sort of external dynamics that are in play here, we’re going to remain vulnerable for a long time,” Dobbs said. “I don’t think that we’re going to have some miraculous increase in our vaccination rate over the next few weeks, so people are going to die needlessly.

The vaccines are nearly as effective against the Delta variant as the original strain, greatly minimizing the chance of infection and nearly eliminating the risks of developing a serious illness. Studies suggest, however, that being fully vaccinated is the only adequate protection against the Delta variant, as a single shot of either of the two-dose mRNA vaccines provides only weak protection against infection. The Delta variant, first identified in India, is believed to be about 60% more contagious than the Alpha variant and up to twice as contagious as the original strain of COVID-19.

Delta is now also the dominant variant across the United States. Nationally, the average number of new cases has started to trend upwards due to localized Delta outbreaks in places such as Mississippi with low vaccination rates. 

The Delta variant has considerably increased the already high risks posed by the virus to unvaccinated people. Between June 3 and July 1, 95% of all COVID infections in Mississippi were among the unvaccinated. During that period, the same group also accounted for 90% of hospitalizations and 89% of deaths.

Despite the wide availability of vaccines and the risks posed by variants, Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the share of its population that has been vaccinated. With over 2 million shots administered, only 31% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated.

One of the main hurdles the state faces in getting more people vaccinated is combating the troves of vaccine misinformation that regularly circulate online. The problem is so bad that on Tuesday, MSDH removed the ability to comment on COVID-related posts on its Facebook page.

The department has said that allowing misinformation to spread on its own page is “directly contrary” to the state’s public health mission and the ability to comment will be restored when the department develops an effective plan to moderate them. 

While MSDH has made new recommendations in response to the Delta spread to protect the most vulnerable, they are just that. Mississippi has had next to no COVID-related restrictions at the state level since Gov. Tate Reeves repealed most of them in March.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.