State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs, listens during a Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee hearing on medical marijuana at the state Capitol Monday. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Imagine you are a football coach. You have a quarterback, both accurate and resourceful. He gets the job done. He’s a winner. You have a wide receiver who runs a 4.3 40-yard dash and can catch everything thrown anywhere near him. But, despite defeat after defeat, you steadfastly refuse to play either.

Your team keeps losing. The scores are lopsided. You are in last place in your conference. Every week, the statistics are frightful. You are in 49th place in a 50-team division, but you stubbornly stay the course, keep your best weapons on the bench, and keep on losing.

Yes, you are right, that scenario sounds inconceivable. What coach in his right mind would refuse to use all the weapons available to win? 

Rick Cleveland

Dr. Thomas Dobbs, this state’s chief health officer, must sometimes feel as if he’s watching that football team play.

Mississippi ranks 49th of 50 states in percentage of its citizenry fully vaccinated. The pandemic is raging. The delta variant of COVID-19 is winning. People are dying. ICU units are filled. Emergency rooms can’t handle the numbers of really sick folks. We have more deathly ill people than we have medical staffing to care for them. Doctors and nurses must feel like quarterbacks facing an all-out blitz with no offensive line. Schools are shutting down classes before they can even open. 

Yes, and on a much less important note, the upcoming football season is threatened. Already some high school teams have stopped practicing because too many players have COVID. The Oak Grove football team, the defending Mississippi Class 6A champions, has suspended preseason practices because of a COVID outbreak. The way this pandemic is raging, the colleges might not be that far behind.

In a one-on-one interview last week, I asked Dobbs about all this. Where is all this headed?

“It’s really up to us,” Dobbs answered. “We have the tools to beat this, but we just are not using them. In some ways, we are worse off than we were this time last year.”

Listen to him: We have the tools. We just aren’t using them. Nearly two-thirds of our people have not been vaccinated. My guess is that a lower percentage are wearing masks in public. 

The sports analogies are endless. Would you play football without a helmet and face mask? Would you play shortstop without a glove? Would you play golf with wooden-shafted clubs against a field playing with modern technology?

Dobbs, a high school tennis All American and a centerfielder for his Emory University baseball team, must feel like a coach giving a pep talk to a team that won’t listen.

“We need to get people vaccinated, especially with school starting,” he said. “These shots are extremely safe. They do not cause problems. They are spectacularly effective for teens with strong immune systems.”

Yes, there are vaccinated people who do get COVID. But Dobbs quickly will tell you those cases are relatively infrequent and that vaccinated folks who do come down with the virus do not become nearly as sick as those who are not vaccinated.

I asked Dobbs what he would do if he were a football coach preparing his team for the upcoming season.

“I would strongly urge everyone associated with the team — players, managers, coaches, everybody — to get vaccinated,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re going to see tons of outbreaks, even with people wearing masks. This delta variant scares me. It spreads so much faster… It is spreading across Mississippi like a tsunami.”

Dobbs said that large crowds attending games in open air stadiums are far from his biggest concern.

“I am not nearly as worried about gatherings in outdoor spaces with good air circulation,” he said. “I am much more concerned with the teams and bands traveling to the games in a bus that doesn’t have good air circulation. I am worried about classrooms. I know we have to educate our kids, but until we get this under control, we just can’t do it like we did it before.”

Bottom line: Much more than the upcoming football season is at stake here. We are in a life and death situation with this delta variant, and people are dying every day.

We have the tools to win this fight. Why in the world would we not use them?

There are success stories. Ole Miss reportedly has reached 100% vaccination rate within its football program. Sources tell me Mississippi State and Southern Miss are not far behind. That’s what it’s going to take — for football, and our lives, to return to normal.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.