A free COVID-19 vaccination event was held at New Horizon Church International in partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health, Wednesday, August 4, 2021 in Jackson. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were available to those 12 years of age and older. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As the COVID-19 delta variant has given Mississippi the third highest infection rate in the nation, and the state’s hospitals remain completely overwhelmed with patients, there is at least one bright spot: The state’s vaccination rate has shot up for four straight weeks, increasing 107% over the past month.

Though Mississippi is no longer last in the nation for the share of its population that has been vaccinated, it still trails 48 other states. Just 35% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medical experts are pleading with Mississippians to get vaccinated as the state’s hospital system has reached its full capacity to care for COVID-19 patients — a vast majority of them unvaccinated. And things inside hospitals are becoming more dire than ever.

As of Sunday, there were 1,349 Mississippians hospitalized with COVID-19, with 345 in ICUs and 205 on ventilators. On Monday, none of the 827 adult ICU beds in Mississippi were available.

Across the nation, this latest stage of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be one of the unvaccinated, and the numbers bear that out. Between July 13 and August 9 in Mississippi, 97% of COVID-19 cases, 89% of hospitalizations and 85% of deaths were among the unvaccinated, according to health department data.

And there is no end to this wave in sight. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 3,488 new cases on Tuesday, the highest single-day caseload the state has seen throughout the pandemic. Physicians say these high daily case numbers will translate to record hospitalizations in coming weeks.

This strain on the healthcare system is not sustainable, health care experts warn, and has created an environment where, as of Monday, more than 200 COVID-19 patients were receiving care in emergency room settings when they should be in an ICU. This not only limits the ability of healthcare workers to effectively care for these patients, but it also causes delays in the time-sensitive care that non-COVID patients need. 

Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs and COVID-19 clinical response leader at University of Mississippi Medical Center, has warned that UMMC has not had to turn away any patients yet, but that breaking point is approaching. 

“We are not infinite resources,” Jones said. “We can break. We can have to close… And I think we’re rapidly headed that direction.”

The exhaustion and anger of healthcare workers is bubbling over in a myriad of ways as they deal with a system stretched to the brink by preventable infections and deaths. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted Tuesday morning that he has begun listening to the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers in the morning, “a long standing indication of irrepressible frustration” for him.

In the absence of substantial vaccine encouragement from political leaders like Gov. Tate Reeves, other prominent Mississippi figures are stepping up. 

Archie Manning, the Mississippi native and patriarch of the Manning football family, partnered with the Delta Health Alliance to encourage Mississippians to get vaccinated. 

“We know the vaccine works, but only if you get it,” Manning said in a promotional video. “It’s easy and it works. Please get vaccinated, my friends, and stay healthy.” 

On Sunday, Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin announced that the entire football program, including players, coaches and staff, had been fully vaccinated. No other college or NFL football team has gotten all of their players vaccinated. Following the announcement, Kiffin called the decision to not get vaccinated “irresponsible.”

As scientists continue to collect data on the newest variant that is spreading rapidly, medical experts continue to reiterate that vaccination remains the best protection against contracting the delta variant. The nation’s leading medical researchers agree that 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.

Of the 2,510 Mississippians who died of COVID-19 between Jan. 1 and Aug. 4 of this year, just 51 were fully vaccinated.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.