State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said Tuesday that the Delta variant has taken over “all the transmission within the state of Mississippi.” Dobbs attributed the fourth wave of infections and hospitalizations the state is experiencing to the highly infectious nature of the Delta variant, increased social activities during the summer months and Mississippi’s low vaccination rate.
“It really is kind of a perfect storm for an explosion in cases,” Dobbs said.
The Delta variant has considerably increased the already high risks posed by the virus to unvaccinated people. Over the past month, 93% of new COVID-19 cases in Mississippi and 89% of deaths have been among the unvaccinated. Those vaccinated people who died from an exceedingly rare breakout infection have all been 65 and older.
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 19, hospitalizations increased 189%, from 145 to 419. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs has increased 294% over the same period, from 35 to 138.
Dobbs said that the increase in hospital and ICU admissions is straining the hospital systems in parts of the state, and that COVID patients in the Delta have been flown to the Pine Belt because there are no open ICU beds in their region. There are currently 13 hospitals across the state with zero ICU beds available. Dobbs said that a number significantly higher number of hospitals have less than 10% of their beds available.
MSDH 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.
One of the main hurdles MSDH faces in getting more people vaccinated is combating the troves of vaccine misinformation that regularly circulate online. The problem is so bad that on July 13, the department removed the ability to comment on COVID-related posts on its Facebook page.
MSDH officials 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.
In a candid moment during the press conference, Dobbs reflected on the dire situation the state is in and responded to backlash he’s received from anti-vaccine activists over a comment he made last week, saying “anti-science Nazis on social media” try to find anything to make an excuse to not get vaccinated.
“I just want to apologize for kind of getting away from a sense of calm decorum, but I’m frustrated,” Dobbs said. “I’m mad. I’m upset. I’m depressed. Because we’re going to watch people needlessly die over the next month or two, for no good reason. There is a mountain of lies and disinformation that is being promulgated by a relatively small number of misinformed, disillusioned people. And it’s leading folks astray. It’s very difficult to watch.”
The three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States 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.
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.