Governor Tate Reeves delivers the State of the State address on the steps of the State Capitol Tuesday afternoon. Reeves spoke of a better Mississippi through better education, jobs and unity. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As a more virulent strain of COVID-19 rips through states with low vaccination rates, many governors are using their megaphones and-or state resources to urge residents to get inoculated and overcome vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas has been touring the state with health officials, holding town halls to urge vaccinations and combat “false information” and “myths.” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has announced a sweepstakes with a $1.6 million grand prize and is running ads urging vaccinations in honor of “Babydog,” his family’s pet bulldog. Republican governors in Alabama, Ohio, Utah and other states with low vaccination rates have stepped up their push for their residents to get vaccinated — with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey making an impassioned plea for vaccination last week and saying, it’s “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the disease’s spread.

But not Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. He’s been traveling out of state for GOP political meetings and soccer tournaments and barely acknowledged the fourth wave of the pandemic. He’s made only milquetoast recommendations on vaccinations, typically with the caveat that it’s a personal choice and he understands hesitancy. Mississippi had been dead last in vaccination rates of its citizens, and now only slightly trails Alabama as the most-unvaccinated state.

“The best way to protect yourself is to become vaccinated. There are shots available and free. I just encourage Mississippians to protect themselves. And for those who don’t make that choice I respect your right to make that choice,” Reeves said recently. “… I am not an elected official who thinks I am automatically smarter than everyone else and can tell everybody what they can and cannot do with themselves.”

READ MORE: ‘Fourth wave is here’: MSDH reports 2,326 new COVID-19 cases

Reeves, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have received criticism for seeming unconcerned about low vaccination rates and skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. In a national TV interview, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said such governors have blood on their hands, and former Gov. Chris Christie said leaders have “fallen down” in their vaccine messaging.

Reeves’ office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he plans to campaign for more people to get vaccinated in Mississippi. This week, his office did respond to a plea from a state teachers’ union that he mandate mask wearing in schools this fall. The Mississippi Association of Educators cited the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the state’s low vaccination rate and reports of children with the virus in the intensive care unit in a letter to Reeves on Monday.

A Reeves spokeswoman said, “Governor Reeves has no intention of requiring students and staff to wear masks when they’re in school this fall.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s not an individual decision’: Parents sound off on mask, vaccine requirements in schools

Throughout the pandemic, Reeves has been a reluctant leader making piecemeal, hang-fire and after-the-fact orders on mask wearing and other measures, and at one point early on calling state health leaders “so-called experts” when he didn’t like their recommendations or warnings. He’s often walked a tightrope trying not to anger the far-right of his party including COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers, while trying to manage the pandemic as cases waxed.

But Reeves has often managed to draw criticism from both those wanting more stringent health regulations and those who believe government should be hands off. He now appears set on avoiding angering the latter again, recently saying his main regret with his handling the pandemic is that he didn’t let all businesses stay open during its height.

Marty Wiseman, a longtime Mississippi political science professor and politico, said he understands, viewed with a gimlet political eye, why Reeves would avoid issuing any mandates or orders that would anger a large segment of his GOP base. But he said he doesn’t understand why the governor doesn’t use his bully pulpit like some other Republican governors to urge more people to get vaccinated.

“I don’t think anybody would hold it against him if he said, ‘Look, go get vaccinated,’ even if he got very intentional about about telling folks that,” Wiseman said. “… I see other governors are doing it, but I guess ours ain’t caught up yet. I think Gov. Reeves is still living under the umbrella of Donald Trump, like DeSantis, even though I see even DeSantis has backed off a little bit.”

Wiseman said he believes Reeves could have an impact if he strongly urged people to get vaccinated.

“He’s the titular head of Mississippi government, and the government is totally involved in all of this,” Wiseman said. “… He would have to be very intentional in what he says, not just offhand comments at a press conference on something else, but go over statistics, look the camera in the eye and say, ‘folks, we’ve got a problem and we’re going to have to do it’ … He could even throw in football, that we don’t want to have to go back to limited seating in stadiums … and hopefully do it with the state health officer standing beside him, to give the situation a little gravity.

“But I’m not going to sit in front of my TV waiting for him to come on,” Wiseman said. “I might be waiting a long time. It’s clear that politics is primary in his thinking on this thing.”

Meanwhile, late last week in Alabama, as it jockeys with Mississippi for least vaccinated state, Gov. Ivey told reporters: “I want folks to get vaccinated. That’s the cure. That prevents everything … Let’s get it done. And we know what it takes to get it done.”

“Folks [are] supposed to have common sense. But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

West Virginia Gov. Justice told ABC: “Red states probably have a lot of people that are very, very conservative in their thinking and they think, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that.’ But they are not thinking right … We have a lottery that says if you’re vaccinated, we’re going to give you stuff. Well, you’ve got another lottery for them, and it’s a death lottery.”

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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.