Mississippi Today reporters Will Stribling and Geoff Pender discuss the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the spike in cases and hospitalizations as Mississippi schools prepare to start the year. They also discuss what the state’s leaders are doing (or not) to promote vaccinations.

Stream the episode here.

Read the full transcript of the episode below:

Adam Ganucheau: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. 

Geoff Pender: [00:00:17] I’m Geoff Pender. I’m joined today with my Mississippi Today colleague Will Stribling. Let’s jump right into it.

To use an old mangled saying, it’s deja vu all over again. It seems like we are here in July of 2021, and we’re looking at Mississippi COVID numbers that resemble the worst of last year as I understand. We’re recording this on a Friday, July 23. And  Will, what have we seen with the COVID numbers this week?

Will Stribling: [00:00:51] All right. Well, do you want the good news first or all the bad? 

Geoff Pender: [00:00:56] Is there some good news? Let’s hear it. 

Will Stribling: [00:00:58] Well, the good news, as hollow of a victory that it may be, we’re no longer 50th in vaccination rates. We’re now 49th.  We’re beating Alabama by 0.01 percentage where our fully vaccinated population is at 34%.

And theirs is at 33.9. We’ve been swapping back and forth with them. You know, it might, you know, depending on what numbers are reported to the CDC that day, it may go back and forth. But there is that. Today MSDH is reporting 1,317 new cases. Yesterday was the first time since February that we reported more than a thousand cases in a single day.

But we are doing a lot better than some of our neighbors right now. Like on Wednesday, Louisiana reported 5,388 new cases of COVID and their vax rate is a little higher than ours. And that total for them was the third highest daily count since the start of the pandemic. Overall, where we are right now is around where we were when school started last year. So that’s where that deja vu kinda comes in. But we’re not anywhere close to where we were in February where the entire hospital system across the state was on the verge of collapse. 

Geoff Pender: [00:02:12] Are we headed that way though? We’ve seen some pretty strong warnings from Dr. Dobbs and others that they’re calling this the fourth wave. Are we headed to such precipices? 

Will Stribling: [00:02:24] Dobbs said this week that there’s not a lot of slack in the system, as far as ICU beds go and our number of ventilators. There are 11 hospitals across the state that have no ICU capacity right now. Before that was just because they were full of COVID patients.

But now hospitals have started to go ahead and allow those beds to be booked for elective surgeries people have put off and other procedures. And so that’s what’s limiting the capacity right now, but it’s, you know, it’s not good. And  it’s so bad that, you know, there are COVID patients in the Delta that are having to be  flown to the Pine Belt just to get a bed. And another thing that sets this fourth wave apart from the ones that proceeded it is that this Delta variant is a lot better at infecting young people and children than mainline COVID or any of the other variants were. So we’ve had, you know, infants in ICUs with COVID in Mississippi and across the country, you know, this week and last week. 

Geoff Pender: [00:03:33] And this is breaking right as schools get ready to start, or, some are starting back at this point. So you mentioned, well to look at maybe one other silver lining, Dr. Dobbs said as we did indicate, that vaccination rates have seen an uptick at least, correct?

Will Stribling: [00:03:50] Yeah. They have been just cascading downwards since the week that ended.

On February 27th, we had our highest, that was under 132,000. And then they’ve gone down just considerably each week following that. Our lowest number was the week that ended July 3rd with just 19,956. And they’ve been hovering around that since the beginning of June, just like early to mid 20K range per week.

But we saw a big jump from July 10th to July 17th, from 20,000 to 27,000. And that’s a trend that I and others expect to continue over the next few weeks because parents are getting their kids vaccinated for school. Just this week I came home one day and my little sister who’s 12, so she’s old enough to get the vaccine, said  that she was going to get it, so she didn’t have to wear a mask at school. And, you know, a lot of you know, whatever it takes to get people to take their shots, right? But I imagine a lot of people are in that same position or they’re saying how nasty. this Delta variant is, and it’s finally giving them that prod to just go ahead and take it.

Geoff Pender: [00:04:57] Right. Right. You mentioned Alabama stepping up, stepping up their game. Yeah, we’ve seen  some news across across the country. Some states that have low vaccination rates: Alabama, Arkansas, Utah, West Virginia. These happen to be all Republican governors of these states. And we’ve seen this week that those governors are kinda out on the stump urging people to get vaccinated. Some of these states have either created or continued some incentive programs.

One thing I have to ask here is where is our Governor Tate Reeves on this? We would appear not  seen a whole lot from him. You know,  Mississippi governor, they always say is pretty constitutionally weak. What they do have is a bully pulpit. They’re the state’s cheerleader so to speak. So a lot of their power or ability to get things done comes from talking to the people and using, using that megaphone.

We haven’t seen our governor strongly out pushing vaccinations, have we? 

Will Stribling: [00:06:09] No, it’s been months since Governor Reeves has held a COVID-19 specific press conference. He really seems to be more focused on reopening the economy, bringing in new investments, but as far as the spike and this fourth wave, he’s been really quiet.

See yesterday to WLBT, a statement from Governor Reeves’ office read,”    Governor Reeves believes the vaccines are safe and effective and are an important part of our path beyond COVID-19. He continues to encourage Mississippians to get vaccinated, especially given the rise in new COVID infections in all 50 states, but believes in their right to decide what is best for them and their families.”

And that last sentence there is doing a lot of lifting. 

Geoff Pender: [00:06:52] Sure. He’s thrown that caveat in, and  I think here recently got strong stuff.

Will Stribling: [00:06:59] And it’s just a huge contrast with, you know, even the Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, he’s doing a statewide tour right now, encouraging people to get vaccinated.

And so we see other Republican governors— 

Geoff Pender: [00:07:10] As from what I understand, Kay Ivey in Alabama, Spencer Cox in Utah, Governor Justice in West Virginia. Just from what I’ve seen this week, all those governors again, similarly situated red states yeah, they’re out beating the drum whatever, but yeah, for whatever reason, this is not something that Governor Reeves appears to have really taken on. To me, it’s a shame this has been politicized. But it is what it is. We have seen vaccinations politicized. This is your beat, your bailiwick. What do you see along those lines? You communicate with a lot of  our readers. And what are you seeing as far as vaccine hesitancy?

Will Stribling: [00:07:53] There are, you know, camps. They’re the vaccine skeptics or anti-vaxers  that are just never going to take the shot no matter what anyone says. There are other people who are  still saying, you know, “I want to wait. I wanna, you know, see how other people respond,” but, you know, millions and millions of people in this country have been vaccinated.

Very few of them have experienced side effects or have experienced breakthrough cases. So I don’t know what those folks are waiting for. They’re really just counting down the clock until they get infected. And like Dr. Dobbs has said, at this point you’re likely either going to get the vaccine or you’re going to get COVID cause this, this Delta variant has just completely changed the game. You know, a study released the other day that showed that the viral loads in Delta infections, and a viral load is the measurement of the amount of virus in an organism, you know, in the bloodstream. But the viral loads in the Delta  infections were a thousand time higher than the earlier variants, or the main line COVID, when the virus is first detected in the infected person. And, you know, Delta is, is 50 to 60% more infectious than the Alpha variant and up to twice as infectious as the original strain of the coronavirus. This is why. It’s because  you’ve got so much more virus in your system and the spike proteins on the Delta variant particles are better at resisting the antibodies, being able to grab onto them. And so that’s you know, I admit fault that I, you know, I’ve been fully vaxed since early February and recently I’ve gotten kinda more lax with  masking in public and like I’m sure a lot of people are. But seeing these breakthrough infections has really scared me.  

You know, we’ve seen a lot more people that are fully vaxed get breakthrough infection. And I do want to add to that, that though the risk for you getting a breakthrough infection after being vaccinated is still extremely low. And even if you do  your chances of being hospitalized or dying  even lower all over. The breakthrough infections that we’ve seen in the state that have resulted in deaths and hospitalizations have been in folks older than the age of 65.

So those are, you know, people that are the highest risk.

Geoff Pender: [00:10:13] From what I understand though to o, the rise of variants. The way variants work, lack of vaccinations is playing into that, right? It’s  giving this virus room to  mutate. Yeah, there’s been some talk and I haven’t seen any thing on it, I guess, lately, but about vaccines getting full approval, as opposed to just the emergency approval.

Now, do you think that would convince more people to get vaccinated once that happens? 

Will Stribling: [00:10:43] Yeah. There is a subset of vaccine hesitant folks that are saying that that is what they’re waiting for. Whether or not they’ll actually do it afterwards is yet to be seen. But  yeah, hopefully that will increase trust in the vaccine.

President Biden said this week that he expects that to happen you know, in sometime in September, October, but it’ll be coming soon and that’ll be good for businesses or schools that want to mandate the vaccine. That will give them the more cover because you know the lawsuits that are being filed against schools and businesses that are trying to par that right now are saying, “Hey, this only has emergency approval. You’re trying to make me get an experimental vaccine.” And that’s like the only real argument that they have right now. We saw that UMMC announced a new policy that’ll go into effect at the end of July that’s going to require all employees and students to  either be vaccinated— and they have several methods by which  to verify folks’ vaccination status there— or to wear N95 masks at all times while on 

the premises, but that mask option is only available to people until the vaccines get that full FDA approval. After that a condition of employment or of learning at UMMC is going to be that you have to be fully vaccinated. So I’m interested to see if other you know, healthcare entities in the state or LTCs or schools follow suit.

Geoff Pender: [00:12:14] Right, right. That could, from what we’re seeing now, that could get ugly politically. Although, I mean, let’s face it. It’s not that unprecedented. I mean, I remember back to my childhood, which was long ago, you had, you know, specified list of vaccinations you had to have before you could  attend public school. It’s not totally unprecedented here, but this is again, as we said, really become  politicized, I guess would be the would be the word. Yeah. Social media appears to be playing a big role. 

Will Stribling: [00:12:46] It is, you know, we see the Biden administration taking Carter rhetoric against social media companies for their role in allowing that misinformation to fester. And we’re seeing that even hearing, you know, that it’s way easier to get on Facebook and get vaccine misinformation than, than accurate information. But and it was so bad that the Department of Health had to or they decided to remove the ability to comment on any of the—

Geoff Pender: [00:13:13] Mississippi Department of Health, right? 

Will Stribling: [00:13:15] Yeah. 

Geoff Pender: [00:13:15] And I’ve seen they’ve caught  a little flack for that. In this day and age, it appears that one person’s misinformation is another’s science. So that’s going to be really interesting how that plays out.

Will Stribling: [00:13:29] And it’s so unfortunate because, you know, we saw  in June Mississippi returned like 872,000 doses of vaccine to the federal government pool because of of low demand.

And they’re, you know across a bunch of different states. You know, you see, you know, thousands of doses going to waste every week because they can’t use up an entire vial. And then most of the world right now can’t get access to vaccines at all. And so we have all of the supply here that is just not being utilizedfor folks to keep themselves and their families safe. And it’s really unfortunate. 

Geoff Pender: [00:14:02] It is. And I don’t know, personally thinking back a year or so ago, you know, our country was shut down, a world upended by a pandemic. I guess it just seems a little surreal. I don’t know if I would have believed you if you told me back then that, “Hey, there’s effective, safe vaccines for this, but people aren’t going to take it.” I would’ve probably not believed that back then. But again, hopefully this fourth wave is not going to be like some of the previous ones. I know state leaders have said  the goal here is to prevent our hospital systems from being overloaded, 

Will Stribling: [00:14:42] What we’re most likely  to see are really localized outbreaks in the counties with the lowest vaccination rates and then in schools because there are, you know, vast differences between the back to school plans for different school districts across the state. Like say, in Jackson, masks are going to be required on day one, but in in Madison and Rankin counties, they’re going to be be optional. And they’ve of course said that they will go back to making them mandatory if there is an outbreak, but  there’s undoubtedly going to be. What really worries me is you know, kids getting infected, there’s a very low chance that they’re going to be hospitalized or develop a serious you know, have long COVID or something like that.

But then they could bring it home to, you know, their grandparents, faculty, and staff parents. So we’re going to see a lot of community spread through kids. And so that’s what we’re looking at for the fall semester, at least. 

Geoff Pender: [00:15:38] Wow, okay, well, as you said you opened this with  the scant good news that vaccinations do appear on the increase at this point, so hopefully that’s a trend we’ll see. Maybe some other things will play into that. And  we’ll see things head back in the right direction again, but they  certainly have not been for this week or so. 

Will Stribling: [00:15:59] Yeah, I’m going to be keeping my eyes locked on not just the overall vaccination rate, but the rates for young people. Right now only 7% of 12 to 15 year olds in Mississippi are fully vaccinated and only 13% of 16 to 17 year olds, so I’ll be interested to see if there’s significant gains in those two groups over the next, you know, month or two.

Geoff Pender: [00:16:23] Right. To follow this news follow, Will Stribling at Mississippi Today and our other colleagues. And Will, good talking with you, but not a very good uplifting subject at this point.

Hopefully we see that turn around. 

For 

Will Stribling: [00:16:39] sure. Thanks for having me, Geoff,

Adam Ganucheau: [00:16:47] As we cover the biggest political stories in this state you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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Will Stribling covers healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.