UMMC Associate Vice Chancellor Dr. Alan Jones discusses the need for the COVID-19 Field Hospital, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The University of Mississippi Medical Center announced an amendment to its vaccination policy on Friday that will require, with limited exceptions, employees and students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by November. 

UMMC first announced a vaccine requirement on July 15, but it was not set to be triggered until the mRNA COVID vaccines received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Originally, staff and students were going to be allowed to wear an N95 mask until then, but that will no longer be a sufficient substitute for being vaccinated. 

Dr. Alan Jones, UMMC’s associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs and COVID-19 clinical response leader, announced the policy change in an internal letter on Friday and said that the revised policy was motivated by the recent increase in cases and hospitalizations sparked by the Delta variant.

“COVID-19 in Mississippi is a raging wildfire, but not everyone is helping throw water on the flames in their own backyard,” Jones wrote. “We, as an institution and as the workforce for the state’s leading health system, need to be a leader in this fight.”

In the internal memo, Jones cited this graph created by Financial Times with data from John Hopkins University that shows Mississippi is leading the world in new COVID-19 cases per capita.

“Taking steps to protect our patients is priority one. And having a fully vaccinated health care workforce is the only way to meet that standard,” Jones wrote.

The vaccination policy will be implemented across three phases. Managers and supervisors will be required to show proof of vaccination by Sept. 15, all other employees by Oct. 1 and students by Nov. 1. There will be a limited exemption policy, and any employee or student who wants a special accommodation must submit a request by Sept. 10.

Many colleges and universities across the country have already announced vaccination mandates for the coming school year, as have many health care providers and other employers. In Mississippi, UMMC is the first public higher ed institution to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students.

The delta variant has considerably increased the already high risks posed by the virus to unvaccinated people. Between July 20 and Aug. 16, 98% of the nearly 58,000 COVID-19 infections in Mississippi were among the unvaccinated. During that period, the same group also accounted for 89% of hospitalizations and 86% of deaths.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC’s chief executive, gave a blunt speech on Tuesday where she decried the decision of so many Mississippians to decline the vaccine, despite the great protection to offers for them and their families.

“We as a state, as a collective, have failed to respond in a unified way to a common threat,” Woodward said. We have failed to use the tools that we have to protect ourselves, to protect our families, to protect our children, and to protect our state. “

There has been a significant uptick in vaccinations in Mississippi in recent weeks due to the havoc the delta variant is wreaking across the state and its healthcare system. However, despite the wide availability of vaccines and the risks posed by variants, Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the number of vaccine doses given per capita. With over 2.4 million shots administered, only 36% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated.

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Will Stribling covers healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.