Yvonne Moore, left, and Christy Carmichael collect specimen for COVID-19 testing outside of the Aaron E Henry Community Health Services Center in Clarksdale, Miss., Wednesday, March 29, 2020.
Yvonne Moore, left, and Christy Carmichael collect specimen for COVID-19 testing outside of the Aaron E Henry Community Health Services Center in Clarksdale, Miss., Wednesday, March 29, 2020.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 2,326 new COVID-19 cases on July 19, further documenting the hold the Delta variant has on the state and the threat it poses to the unvaccinated.

Commenting on the spike in cases and hospitalizations, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted Monday morning: “Very sad indeed. Didn’t have to be this way. 4th wave is here.”

Delta currently represents nearly all COVD-19 circulating in Mississippi. There are 231 confirmed cases, but those only represent a small surveillance sample, so it is undoubtedly a small fraction of the Delta infections in the state. Additionally, the MSDH report on the number of variant cases in the state hasn’t been updated since July 13. 

The surge of Delta infections Mississippi is experiencing is already hitting hospitals and ICUs. While hospitalizations are nowhere near their February peak, the increase in recent weeks has been sharp. Between July 5 and July 18, hospitalizations increased 154%, from 145 to 369. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs has increased 257% over the same period, from 35 to 125. 

Dobbs said that the increase in hospital and ICU admissions is straining the hospital systems in parts of the state, like Jackson and Hattiesburg, that have seen non-COVID procedures fill up their ICUs. Monday morning, Dobbs said there were 11 major ICU’s across the state with zero beds available. 

Dobbs and other health officials have 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.

READ MORE: COVID-19 daily case update

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 34% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

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.