Mississippi Today hosted a virtual town hall last week with key state leaders including Dr. Dan Edney, chief health officer at the Mississippi Department of Health, Dr. LouAnn Woodward, chief executive of University of Mississippi Medical Center, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. We also heard from several key education leaders.

Listen to the full town hall on this week’s episode of The Other Side. You can also watch the town hall here.

Read a transcript of the episode below.

Rita Brent: Greetings everyone. My name is Rita Brent, also known as that girl from the car commercials. Today, I come to you as a proud native of Jackson, Mississippi, arguably the city with fewer potholes than ever before. I also come to you as a lover of journalism and truth. Therefore it is my honor and pleasure to officially welcome you to Mississippi Today’s COVID Community Town Hall.

Considering there Is a delta variant on the loose, Mississippi Today thought it would be best to bring this event to you virtually unless we create a new delta Loki variant that even Marvel universe can’t contain. “Why is this event necessary,” you might be asking. Well, because things are so uncertain I considered wearing a mask to deliver this message to you, and I’m in a hotel room. I mean, I can’t risk someone sneezing through the screen and it somehow reaches me through, I don’t know, 5G. Of course that’s highly unlikely, but exactly why Mississippi Today is taking the initiative to dispel myths during this critical time and provide a sense of understanding with advice from trustworthy experts.

As much as we all love Google, our 12 minutes of random research doesn’t negate or supersede the decades of dedicated work medical experts have contributed to be able to guide us through these challenging times. The truth of the matter is this pandemic has caused great devastation and it’s gone on longer than a Chick-fil-A drive-thru line.

None of us expected it to, and if you’re not good with eye and forehead recognition, I’m sure this mask thing is beyond frustrating for you. Is that Marshall Ramsey? No, that was not his eyebrows. A year and a half later, there are still questions to be answered, like is one vaccine more effective than the other? Will orange juice and prayers prevent me from getting the virus? Is COVID-19 now 21?

That’s why it’s behaving so wildly that Jeff Bezos social distanced while floating in space on his expensive adult field trip. Thankfully, Mississippi Today cares about your concerns, your comments, but most importantly, your wellbeing. Oh, and a side note, as a general rule, don’t comment something unbecoming on social media, unless you’re willing to file for unemployment.

All right. Today’s town hall is meant to give you confidence, clarity, and maybe even relief. We hear a lot of things on the internet and the streets, but today, Mississippi Today is putting knowledge and honesty at the forefront, so you can believe in truth again. Just like I believe in Coach Prime and those 2-0 tigers at my alma mater Jackson State University, #TheeILove, I think I speak for many of us when I say we just want to make tailgating great again. The time has come to put on your best hand sanitizer, the kind that dries fast and isn’t all gooey, perk up your listening ears and employ your critical thinking skills as a Mississippi Today presents to you a COVID Community Town Hall.

May you leave more informed than you came. Then after this town hall, be smart, be safe and let’s continue to preserve the art of journalism and humanity. Together we can heal as a people and get back to the joys of life. My name is Rita Brent, and as we say at my home church, you are welcome, welcome, welcome.

Adam Ganucheau: Wow. What a welcome from Rita Brent, just such a great Mississippian. My name is Adam Ganucheau. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Mississippi Today, and it’s truly a pleasure to be here with you all. We hope this panel with some of Mississippi’s leading healthcare and education experts will provide some information you need to ease the difficulty and confusion of this challenging time. And as we know, this really is a challenging time. We’re coming down from our fourth wave of the COVID pandemic, but it’s still very much a threat to everyone in our. During the month of August alone, the delta variant really just decimated our state’s hospital system.

Our state’s medical centers were so full that tent hospitals had to be erected in parking garages to care for COVID patients. ICU beds are still difficult to come by and our frontline workers, the doctors and nurses across Mississippi, are so very tired. And while COVID case loads were breaking daily and weekly records in Mississippi in August, the state’s public schools went back into session.

Many districts didn’t initially have mask mandates to begin the year, but were forced to implement them in a matter of days to stop the quick spread of the virus among students and teachers. Some schools had to switch to a combination of virtual and in-person learning, and others had to close for completely for a little while.

We’ve heard horror stories from inside schools, teachers and parents being scared about their health and their wellbeing. Students are missing out in some cases on vital in-person learning, and administrators have sometimes been at a loss of how to move forward without statewide guidance. And of course we know that plenty of schools, teachers, administrators, and parents are making the most out of a difficult situation and continuing to ensure that we provide great in-person instruction to our children.

We’re going to touch on this and a lot more within the next hour. But before we get started, I want to give a very quick shout out to the sponsors of this event. Thanks so much to the Delta Health Alliance and The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi for their help in making this event possible.

Now I’m so pleased to help kick the event off with Byron Brown, a news anchor at WJTV12 here in Jackson. Byron, thank you so much for being here today. 

Byron Brown: Adam, thank you for having me, and it’s great to be here. We want to begin by introducing our first two panelists. Dr. Dan Edney is the chief medical officer at the Mississippi State Department of Health, the agency managing the state’s COVID-19 response, and also Delbert Hosemann, Mississippi’s lieutenant, governor and the top officer in Mississippi state senate. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us this afternoon.

Well, Dr. Edney let’s get right to it. Where do we stand right now with the delta variant across the state of Mississippi? 

Dr. Dan Edney: Well, Byron, we’re still reporting very high numbers. Today we reported over 2,300 new cases. Thankfully, it looks like we’re reaching a plateau ,and we’ve come off the highest zenith that we had previously, where it was 4-5,000 new cases, but it has not started to come down the backside of this wave yet, and we don’t know how long we’ll be at this plateau.

Our hospitals are doing better. We’re having fewer hospitalizations, thankfully, and fewer cases in the hospital, but we still have 1,100 COVID patients statewide in Mississippi in the hospitals. But our ICUs, as Adam said, are still critically full. It’s very difficult to transfer to higher levels of care throughout Mississippi .Today, we had 390 in the ICU, which is very high number for us and still running about 280 patients on the ventilators, which again, those are extremely high numbers. 

Byron Brown: Dr. Edney, for anyone watching or listening who doubts the effectiveness of a COVID vaccine, what do you say to them?

Dr. Dan Edney: Well, all you have to do is look at what’s happening through the delta variant tsunami. If you look at the total number of cases, only 2% of these cases over 2,000 a day are vaccinated. The 98% are unvaccinated. The number in the hospital where we’re running about 12% that are vaccinated.

So the vaccine is not perfect. It was never reported to be perfect, but it’s very effective as you can see, you know, the vast majority in the hospital are unvaccinated. And then our deaths, unfortunately running too high, but only 13% of those deaths are among the vaccinated. And virtually all of those are over 65 with comorbidities.

So the delta wave really has been a wave that’s hit the unvaccinated very hard and has hit younger populations including our children. 

Adam Ganucheau: Lieutenant Governor Hosemann, we have a couple questions for you about COVID relief spending and the state response to the virus. But before that, I want to ask you about your own experience with contracting COVID-19. As you’ve discussed before, you had a pretty bad experience it sounds like with the virus, and it seems like perhaps that’s inspired you to do several things, including becoming a public advocate for getting the vaccine.

Can you tell us just a little bit about what your experience was with COVID and whether or not that’s kind of shaped how you’ve led in the months and weeks since then?

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann: Well I usually don’t talk about personal health stuff, but I’m happy to talk about it this time. Right after our last session, we had to do the budget June the 30th of last year.

We contracted COVID. I guess it was from the House of Representatives. Certainly my senators wouldn’t have given it to me. So when we got sick, we got really ill. And as you probably know, I’ve run marathons, New York marathon and all this other, and I’m a regular exerciser, let me put it that way. And my goal some days was to try to walk a hundred steps, and many days it was difficult to do so, just a devastating thing. What clearly bothers so much of us— and we were looking at an article about this in one of the papers today— was about what happens post. You know, you say you get over COVID, a lot of times you don’t get over COVID. There are body aches, lungs, hearts, minds, foggy, and a lot of things Dr. Edney and others would be more, much more qualified to talk about. But I think all of us that are COVID survivors really wonder a little bit about what the long term consequences are. It is very difficult to say what they are at this particular point in time. It was clear to me. You know, I used to run three or four miles, and I couldn’t run around the block, you know, a month later.

So it takes a while to get over that and what those long-term ramifications are. LouAnn Woodward and her research team will find out at some point, but you’re right. It effected my particular stance on having you look at your health provider and not some green dots on the screen to give you your health information. Dr. Edney used to actually treat my own mother. Dr. Edney cares about whether you live or die or not. The internet, the little green guys, don’t give a damn one way or the other. So it’s amazing to me that people rely on such a non-human event to make a medical decision about themselves, and I’m very hopeful that people will look at what’s going on. And we have had an upswing, thank goodness, in vaccinations, and look at what they’re doing. Talk to their doctor or their healthcare provider and then make an intelligent decision, not one based on what happened to somebody, to a friend somewhere else. 

Adam Ganucheau: Sure. Before today’s event, we asked readers and viewers just to submit some questions for all the experts that you’ll hear from today.

I want to dive into a couple of those questions, and Lieutenant Governor Hosemann, I want to start with you. A couple readers asked us about the spending of federal funds. I know that’s sort of right up your alley. You’ve done a lot of work the last few weeks, traveling across the state, trying to decide, you know, how Mississippians want those federal funds to be spent. A two-part question: Can you just briefly recap for us what’s been spent in terms of federal funding, stimulus funding so far to this point? And then the second part is what are you thinking about the next round of federal money, and what do you think that should be spent on? 

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann: You really have to look at this as three different tranches. The first was the CARES Act money that we got a year ago, and we put $130 million in healthcare to start.

Then as we realized, not all of the money we put in other other things like business incentives and whatnot were not claimed by small business. We moved $10 million to ICU and negative pressure rooms, all of which by the way were occupied. So thank goodness we did that. The second round of that is coming out now allows for us to spend money on water and sewer, broadband, and some on healthcare expenses and mental health.

So that will be the ones $900 million we got and then $900 million to cities and counties got, those will be going forward next year in January. And we’re asking our cities and counties— you’re right. I’ve been out. I think I’ve been in 50 counties actually, where we go out and ask them what they need.

“Please do your planning. This is your planning for the future. And then the legislature is going to address additional funding for the things that you think are important to your community.” Some of those will include healthcare. We’re also looking at one of the things that was mentioned clearly on the start of the program, which is the fact that our nurses are being lured away with additional funds.

 I talked to one hospital yesterday, and he told me that it was going to cost $175 an hour to get a mobile nurse to come in, a traveling nurse, to come into his hospital. And he’s paying like $40-50 an hour, so it’s a huge gap to get that. So what we want to do here in the legislature is look at an interim funding for nurses to stay here in these 12 week periods that we’re going through with the virus.

And then what I really like to do is a program that we do for doctors, which is if we will pay some or all of your tuition to go to nursing school if you will agree to stay four years in the state. And we do that with doctors, and I just was at their award ceremony the other day. Fifty-seven physicians are actually doing that.

Fifty-seven are going to rural, that’s rural only or staying in rural Mississippi for an obligated period of time in the hopes that they’ll stay there throughout their career. I think the same thing applies to the nursing profession. And I think you’ll see that coming out of this, out of this next tranche.

Byron Brown: Dr. Edney, I think we have a question from West Point. Are you concerned about the new variant of COVID-19, and how are we preparing for it to rival here in Mississippi? 

Dr. Dan Edney: That’s a concern a lot of people have. Thankfully, lambda, which came before mu, is not showing to be much to worry about. Right now delta is taking all the oxygen out of the room, and there’s nowhere for a new variant to enter because delta is at the level of contagiousness as chicken pox, which is extremely high. One person infects eight to nine others. So right now there’s no room for mu or anything else to get in. The CDC is monitoring that closely, but it has not been labeled as a variant of concern at this point, but we’re watching it closely.

So right now it’s still all about delta. But the way to attack the variants is through vaccination. COVID is mutating because it’s transmitting too much and replicating too much. And the more that it transmits from person to person, the more opportunity it has to learn and get better. And so the way to do that is to get community immunity up and that’s either going to be through vaccination or it’s going to be recovering from COVID. But as you heard the lieutenant governor describe it, COVID is not something that you want to choose to get. Get your immunity the safer way and the way that’s easier to deal with. And that’s through vaccination; 2.2% mortality in Mississippi with our COVID cases. So you multiply that 2,300 by 2.2% and that’s how many will have succumb to COVID in about two to three weeks. So it’s just not worth the risk to get immunity naturally. Get vaccinated, which is far safer. 

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann: I want to add something to that. Just a couple of weeks ago, we buried a friend of mine, David in Vicksburg, Mississippi.Dr. Edney would know who that is. He was not vaccinated. Sixty-eight years old in great shape, worked out, ran in the national park, all of the kind of things that you would expect of someone to stay healthy. And he was not vaccinated. And his law partner told me that one of the last things he said to his three sons before COVID claimed him was, ” Please get vaccinated.”

So I will tell you I echo what Dr. Edney is saying. Why are we taking those kinds of chances, not only for ourselves, but our family, our friends, our coworkers, our people at the church, now? You know, when he talks about spreading it multiples of eight for every person, it’s exponential. And then the other thing that I don’t know that anybody’s talked about, Adam, is the economic loss to us.

And when I meet with these hospitals, it costs them $5,000-10,000 a day with these patients, and of course that comes from somewhere. It doesn’t come out of the air. It comes from the state, the federal government, or the hospitals themselves withdrawal and other things they would like to have done that they don’t do.

And then when you get into the economics of somebody not working, and then you get into the, I guess, really the elephant in the room, how do we sell businesses to come to Mississippi as the least vaccinated state? Is that our selling point? I don’t think so. So all of these have a multiplier effect, not just from the actual route to sell, but also from an economic effects that auto out from us here.

And I want to be real clear about that. This is a negative economically not only to you and your family, but to the whole state. 

Adam Ganucheau: Well, Dr. Edney and Lieutenant Governor Hosemann, we could talk all day about this. We have a great panel coming up in just a few minutes.

I want to ask you all one quick question, and we only have about 60 seconds left with this first segment. So if y’all could split that up quickly, I’ll ask an easy question. What can we do about this? In your opinion, what can we do to help encourage Mississippians in the least vaccinated state in America, to your point governor, what can we do to spread the word and get these numbers looking a lot better? 

Dr. Dan Edney: Well, it’s important to, in a non-judgmental loving fashion, talk to your friends and family about the importance of protecting yourself through vaccination. Or if you’re just not going to get vaccinated, then, you know, wear your mask and be appropriate and don’t take unnecessary risk until this is over and just understand, this is not over.

We still have a ways to go, but judging each other doesn’t get us anywhere. We need to be concerned about each other. 

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann: I think that was very well said. I don’t have anything to add to it. The state’s going to support our hospitals, our nurses, our doctors that are dealing with this and the families that are left behind.

But we would like for that to be minimal. 

Adam Ganucheau: Sure. Well Dr. Edney and Lieutenant Governor Hosemann, thank you so much for being here with us. And Byron, thank you for being here too. I know you need to break away and get ready for the 12 news at five broadcast. 

Byron Brown: Well, thank you very much. We will work and have much more highlights from this town hall on our evening newscast, and of course, we’re gonna have much more on Sunday’s Mississippi Insight on Sunday at 10:30. Thank you for having me, and I’m looking forward to hearing much more of the second half of the discussion. 

Adam Ganucheau: So now I’m going to turn it over to my colleagues here at Mississippi Today, Kate Royals and Will Stribling, who are going to moderate the second panel of the evening.

Thank you so much for being here. 

Kate Royals: Thank you, Adam. I’m Kate Royals. I’m an education reporter here at Mississippi Today, and I just want to say thank you all for being here and thanks for letting me be a part of it. Without any further ado, I’ll go ahead and get to some of our reader submitted questions.

And our first one is from Maggie Pooley in Ridgeland, and I think it’s probably a good one for Dr. Edney or Dr. Woodward. And it is: How effective are face masks really in schools?

Dr. Dan Edney: Well, masks work period, and we have proven that as we just had a large study that was reported demonstrating the effectiveness of masks. But all of us in healthcare can tell you, I mean, I think part of the reason I survived until I could be vaccinated was because of the ability of masks to protect me.

And you know, obviously we’ve been wearing surgical masks forever, and there’s a reason. Surgical masks don’t filter all the bacteria and viruses, but it reduces droplet transmission and it reduces the bacterial and viral load as it goes through the mask. There are a lot of reasons why masks work, but if you look at the influenza season last year it was non-existent because we were all masked and socially distancing, something we had never done in my 30-year career.

And already flu is in Mississippi. We’re seeing COVID and flu together because we’ve dropped our mask. You know, there are times when it’s appropriate to wear a shirt, and there’s times it’s appropriate to wear a mask. And you know, I’m not going naked face to Walmart. Now I wear my mask. 

Kate Royals: Dr. Lacy and Dr. Coleman, what do y’all see in your school system? I know, Dr. Lacy, you’re in an elementary school, a principal there, so how’s it with the little folks, getting them to wear the mask properly? 

Dr. Mandy Lacy: Well, they’re precious. They’ll do anything we ask them to do. And it’s important that we’re modeling what we expect them to do.

So our teachers are doing a great job, whether they’re vaccinated or not, keeping their masks on while they’re here at school. They’ll only take them down unless they’re in their six feet teaching zone, six feet away from the closest student. But what we’ve noticed, you know, we’ve had more cases this year than we have in the past, but we have not noticed the spread in the classrooms, and I definitely attribute that to the masks.

We feel like the spreads coming more so from, you know, outside of the school. So we definitely have seen an increase in children being well at school, even as far back as last year as was just stated, in regard to our nurses.

Dr. Bonita Coleman: Right. I agree. I think, you know, none of us expected to be in our third school year still dealing with COVID, but yet here we are.

We are a system just as Pass Christian that has been masked all year. I will tell you that surprisingly it was a lot easier for us to convince our little ones to mask then sometimes our older students. But with that being said, because we were so committed to staying in school, to staying in person and traditional as much as possible, our students have been absolutely phenomenal in doing everything that we’ve asked of them. So we continue to strive in this environment, but at the same time, I think all of us, of course, are looking forward to the day when all of this is over. 

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: And I’ll just add one little twist on the mask piece. Here at the medical center, we are also a school. You know, not everybody always thinks about that, but we’ve got about 3,000 students.

So in our education programs, it’s very hard for those to be virtual. We do have some components that can be virtual, but when you’re learning how to take care of patients, so much of that really has to be in-person bedside with the physicians, with your nursing professors, with your dental professors, all of those.

So we have been in person pretty much throughout the entire pandemic, and our students have been wearing masks. You know, even before the vaccine was widely available, people were wearing masks. We had a few little outbreaks in our student population, but that was primarily tied to social events outside of school.

So we felt very good with our own students though they a little bit older than yours, but we felt very good with our own students and how well they were protected by wearing masks. 

Michelle Henry: And it sounds like having a culture of safety is prevalent among all of the school districts, whether they are of adults or of elementary, middle, or high school age children. Having a culture of safety is very important.

And so that’s something that as parents, we could encourage whether we believe in the vaccine or not, whether our families are vaccinated or not, having a culture of safety is something that can promote. We can promote in our homes to support the school districts. 

Kate Royals: Thank y’all. Okay. This next question is from Sharon in Sebastopol. This is for the doctors again, the medical doctors, and deals with confusion about a vaccine that doesn’t prevent illness like some appear to in regards to polio, measles, et cetera, but has been proven obviously to reduce the severity of illness if a breakthrough infection occurs.

So she’s asking specifically whether the COVID vaccine is really comparable to the other vaccines that children are required to have to attend public schools.

Dr. Dan Edney: Well from a public health standpoint, you know, every vaccine is different, and this is really more comparable to the flu shot which is also an RNA virus. RNA viruses are more difficult to develop longstanding immunity for. You know, we were hoping to get maybe a 50% efficacy of a vaccine a year ago, and then we came out with 95%. This vaccine is far superior to the flu shot. And I take my flu shot every year because it’s very effective. Thankfully, we have vaccines that do help eradicate disease. Then we have other vaccines that attenuate disease. And so it’s, you know, we’re still 88% effective in preventing contracting COVID, but more importantly, we’re still over 97% effective in keeping it from killing us.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: I would just add a bit to that to say that either looking at the Department of Health website or most major hospitals and health systems now are putting out through some sort of social media platform or on their website their numbers of patients that are in the hospital and in the ICU and breaking those down by vaccinated and not vaccinated.

So you can look at it at the state level at the Department of Health, or you can look at Forrest General’s website, Gulfport Memorial’s website, our website, you know, multiple hospitals across the state are putting this information out there so that people can see the difference. And clearly the patients who are very, very sick and who are in the ICU, the vast majority are not vaccinated.

So that that’s one of those pushes that I think we’re trying to help people see that if you are vaccinated, yes, you can get infected with COVID. You can. The vaccine is not 100% at preventing you from getting COVID. However, it is really great at preventing you from being critically ill or dying from COVID.

Dr. Dan Edney: It’s very important that our pregnant ladies in the state know the dangers of COVID that pregnancy in of itself is a very high risk indicator. And all the deaths that we’ve seen of our pregnant moms have been unvaccinated. So vaccination is approved and recommended for all stages of pregnancy and breastfeeding moms.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: And could I add one more point to this? I’m sorry. So, you know, when we were first dealing with the coronavirus and the alpha variant was the predominant variant, in that situation, many and most of the patients who got really sick were older. They were sick already. They had some ongoing chronic health problems, and it’s important to realize that over the last year and a half, now we are dealing with a different variant.

It has changed. The predominant variant that we’re dealing with is different, and it is that delta variant. And that this has been the variant that we are seeing be so infectious and so dangerous for the pregnant moms, for the kids, for people who are healthy, you know, none of us should feel that we are somehow protected from the Delta variant unless we have gotten vaccinated and we are wearing a mask. 

Kate Royals: Thank y’all. Okay. This next one is for Dr. Coleman, and it’s a little bit of a multiple parts. It’s from a Robert Droel in Madison, and he’s asking: What advice would Superintendent Coleman have for school districts throughout the country, which have just begun their school year?

And then the second part is: Does it frustrate her that while Ocean Springs is clearly taking COVID seriously and following public health guidance, neighboring Jackson County School district is mask optional, and apparently, at least in the past, has let parents choose whether to quarantine their kids and kind of taking some different approaches to things. 

Does that frustrate you and which district is more reflective of the community’s attitude towards school safety?

Dr. Bonita Coleman: Right. So starting with the first question, I think throughout this entire pandemic educators have been placed in sometimes the most unfortunate circumstance of really trying to operate without understanding all of the science.

I mean, because clearly we’re not epidemiologists. We are really relying on the Mississippi Department of Health, CDC for guidance. And so throughout this entire process for all of us, because this is not.our expertise, we’ve had to read research and just try to stay one step ahead. So I would tell educators to do exactly that. Please attend the chats that the Dr. Byers and Dr. Dobbs provide for all of us on Friday mornings. Try and read as much as you can. And of course, we’re one of those school systems, like I said, that we’ve stayed in person, but at the same time, we also had a virtual component. I think it’s very important to provide options to your community right now because as I’ve continued to say, we’re all in the same storm, but all of us are not in the same boat or not even in the same type of boat.

And so that kind of leads to my response to that second question. We’ve pretty much kept our heads down and tried to worry about our own and to take care of the children and the citizens right here within the confines of what we could control. And so, yes, I know that all districts have the flexibility right now without a health order in place of making those decisions.

And while we are not all making the same decision, at the same time, our responsibility is to the citizens and the students here in Ocean Springs.

Kate Royals: Okay. This next one is from Josh Bernstein in Hattiesburg, and it has to do with when the IHL, Institutions of Higher Learning, voted against mandating vaccines on college campuses. And it said when it did so that the Department of Health has not mandated a COVID vaccine as a condition of attendance, yet he says he had over 1,000 college campuses around the U.S. require these vaccines.

All of those campuses are in areas with less community transmission and higher vaccination rates than Mississippi. Why in the face of mounting deaths and ICU shortages is the Mississippi Department of Health still not recommending colleges in Mississippi mandate COVID vaccines? I’m guessing this is on you, Dr. Edney. 

Dr. Dan Edney: Well, our approach has been to try to educate and incentivize our folks to get vaccinated. And as what we’re seeing already with the very few mandates that are in place, a lot of people are digging their heels in even deeper. And I can tell you that we’re moving from vaccination hesitancy more to vaccination hardened resistance.

And as I talked to more and more groups, I’m getting a flavor of more frustration and anger, which we, we don’t want. We want people to be safe. And, you know, if I were king of the world, I would, you know, mandate vaccines, but there are a lot of factors in play. It’s very clear the health department has recommended that every person in Mississippi that is eligible be vaccinated, you know, unless there’s a clear contraindication, there are not many at all for them.

I don’t think Dr. Dobbs could be any clearer on that. And I think, you know, the mandates are coming from the federal government, but in meantime, we’re just trying to educate our folks to please take the safe approach of vaccination, which is safe, effective, and free.

Kate Royals: This one’s for Michelle. You’re a parent of some children in Jackson Public Schools. Do you want to just sort of tell us about what was it like being virtual, you know, the majority of last year, all of last year versus now? You’ve been on both sides of it as a parent, so what’s that been like?

Michelle Henry: So the school district has a responsibility to make sure that all students receive a quality public education. And we can say that some of our students who had home support, who had adequate internet access, they were able to thrive through the pandemic, my children not being the exception. We set up parameters, we set up guidelines on what our school day would look like, and so our virtual learning was able to thrive. However, their social interactions plummeted, and I have children who are socially motivated. And so because of that, we’ve seen both sides. Now I recognize that my children need to be around other children. I was one of those who felt that when the district decided that we would go back to traditional face-to-face, that I would do everything in my power at home to make sure that my children are safe in the school system.

And so, as soon as my youngest son turned 12, we made sure that he got vaccinated. Not only that, but a mask is a part of their wardrobe every single day. You know that when you lay your clothes out at night for the next day, you get your shirt, your pants, your shoes, and your mask because that is something that you have to do.

I also have college students who are back on the college campuses, and every 30 days it is mandatory that they received a COVID test. The state Department of Health offers them free, and so we have access to it, but it’s about, again, that culture of safety that I was speaking about earlier. Individual households have to make sure that that is what we are doing.

And it is unfair for me to know that my children need to be around other children, choose not to allow them to go and be around other children, but send them in there without any type of training or any type of protection to make sure that they are safe and that they come home at the end of the day as safe as possible.

So sitting on both sides of those, I recognize that it is very important to make sure that you have a plan for whichever side of it is. The school district has to do what’s best for the school district. But as parents, we have to do what’s best for us and whatever side that is, make sure you have a plan going in.

Kate Royals: Well, I’m going to turn it over to my coworker, Will. He’s got some more reader questions and maybe some of his own, so thank you so much. 

Will Stribling: Thanks, Kate and all the panelists. That was great. That portion of the Q&A was more focused on education issues. This will be more focused on just the healthcare system and vaccines in general.

This first question is for Dr. Woodward and Dr. Edney. It’s from Camille and Rankin County. She asks: As it stands right now in Mississippi, there is no limit to the number of patients that a nurse can be responsible for simultaneously. How can patients, especially now be assured that they are getting adequate care when the nurses are spread so thin? We’ve gotten a lot of questions like that because people are worried now, you know, hearing that the healthcare system is so overwhelmed that even if they are able to get into a bed that they won’t be open to get the same quality care that they would during a time where this system was under less stress. So hoping you all could speak to that. 

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: So I’ll say a few things about that and then turn it over to you, Dr. Edney, to add to it.

We are stretched very thin at so many at so many levels, nursing being one of the major levels and a major pain point, but also respiratory therapist. You know, today, you know, we’ve had multiple conversations within the four walls of this medical center, or I don’t know how many walls we have, but all of our walls about respiratory therapy and the shortage we have there, but it’s also LPNs. It’s CMAs.. It’s really so many of the people that are involved in hands-on patient care. But nurses are definitely probably the highest volume and biggest pain point and what people have heard about the most. So probably many of the listeners right now have heard about, you know, a few weeks ago when the EMS and the Memphis emergency services basically put out a plea that said, you know, we are getting close to some sort of tagging triage system. And the CMO at North Mississippi Medical Center put out a public service announcement about our emergency department and hospital is overwhelmed.

“You know, please don’t come to the emergency department if you can put it off.” So what happens is basically you become overwhelmed when there are more patients than you have the resources to care for, you have to do one of two things. You have to try to spread your resources more thin, which creates a lot from everybody involved, or you start closing down beds and you start saying, “I’m sorry, we cannot take that next patient and transfer. We can’t take that ambulance patient. We can’t take, you know, whatever the case may be. We were going to have to postpone your surgery.” We are going to have to do things like that that none of us are comfortable doing, but yet we’ve all heard, at least I have, in the news in the last couple of weeks, different examples of that happening around the country, in some cases in Mississippi.

So that is a concern that we all have, that the nurses have, that the leaders have, the physicians have, respiratory therapists. How do we manage it when you get to that point where the demand exceeds your resources? And my background is emergency medicine. And one of the things that’s very fundamental to training in emergency medicine is: What is the definition of a ?disaster? And the hardcore definition of a disaster is the demand exceeds your resources, whatever you’re talking about, ventilators people, beds, nurses, meds, whatever it may be. So, we have been teetering and sometimes even toppling over into that situation where the demand exceeds our resources.

So what can you do? We’ve called as a state, we have called the Department of Health, the governor’s office has called for additional help. You know, we’ve had field hospitals set up in parking garages. They have at the state level try to bring in additional resources from the standpoint of contract personnel, Department of Defense personnel, that has been helpful.

It is also complicated. It’s not easy and it’s not simple and it’s not stream-lined, but that has been helpful. I feel like in some cases we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. You know, there is a finite amount of people that are out there available to assist. And when weed people in from Tennessee, that hurts Tennessee, and they’re gonna pull people in from Alabama and, you know, it is a challenge.

It is a daily struggle and probably the thing that keeps people like me, and I would say probably 10,000 people here at the medical center up at night. That is our greatest concern. Do we close down beds? Do we continue to take patients in that front door that is the emergency department when we’re already holding 30 patients that need an inpatient bed?

There’s no easy solution. There’s no quick answer to this. I’ll turn it over to Dr. Edney for his input. 

Dr. Dan Edney: No, absolutely. I agree with everything, and, you know, basically, Will, our hospitals and especially our hospital staffs led by nurses have just done an incredible feat this last four to six weeks. They have done things that nobody will ever understand unless you were there. I’m still a pricing internist and have watched it.

And I can tell you, yes, resources were stretched, but quality was maintained to the highest level possible. That’s just who they are. And I’m so grateful, Dr. Woodward, for the leadership UMMC has given us all through this pandemic, but we, yeah, we reached a point where we were about to make decisions we’ve never had to make before, like Idaho was making now in terms of deciding who gets a vent and who doesn’t, or who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t.

Thankfully, our people have stepped up. Vaccination rates were up to 42% and we made an incredible effort to get monoclonal antibody therapy out everywhere, which reduced hospitalizations by 80%. So even though we’re still seeing high numbers, we are getting some breadth in the hospitals. We still need them in the ICUs, but it’s just a shout out to everybody that’s done things that most people never imagined we’d have to do, and especially to our nurses who have stayed in their post and have not deserted the state, our nurses who are being paid less than the travel nurses are getting paid and they’re staying in their home communities and taking care of their friends and their families. You know, the lieutenant governor’s right.

We have got to take care of them. They have saved the day for us.

Will Stribling: Thank y’all. And this next question is from Carolyn in West Point. She said that she’s not vaccinated, but her husband is, and is it possible for him to be asymptomatic and pass it onto me? I know that’s yes, but Dr. Edney, could you just talk a bit about how folks who are living in homes with family members that may not be vaccinated how they can prevent or help prevent a spread within the home because, you know, they’re like in my home I have little sisters who are not able to be vaccinated right now. You know, a lot of people are dealing with this right now and just trying to prevent that transmission in the home where it occurs the most frequently.

Dr. Dan Edney: In that situation, it’s easy. You know, get vaccinated. But we do have homes you’re describing, Will, especially multi-generational homes which are common in Mississippi, that all have family members at risk and you have school-aged kids who are not eligible for the vaccine who come home. And I’ve had one patient that I lost. She was vaccinated, but she was responsible for her grandchild, and he came home from school with COVID and she had diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and contracted COVID despite the vaccine because of in-home contact, which is much higher risk.

And she succumbed very quickly to it. So, you know, in those situations you do as Ms. Henry said. You know, your mask as part of your wardrobe, and the children have to be masked at school, or they’re going to bring it home. And if they’re masked, they may still bring it home but it won’t be as high of a viral load, which has a direct correlation to severity of illness.

So you know, if you have a home where not everyone can be vaccinated, then masks become important and you cohort, that means the family all does the same thing. You know, when everybody goes to Walmart, everybody wears their mask. When children go to school, they wear the mask. Everybody tries not to be risky with their behavior.

The family does everything about the same, and that cohort is more protected instead of somebody just going out and going to a lot of parties and bringing it home or going to school unmasked or someone just refusing in the family to be vaccinated. That just puts the family at risk. 

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: And if I could add just a bit, there was a part of that question that said be asymptomatic.

And I do want to emphasize that, you know, the range of symptoms that people have with COVID from the very beginning, whether it was the first variant or now this variant, the range of symptoms that people can have is very broad from asymptomatic to just the minor sniffles and cold and sore throat and, you know, the symptoms that a lot of us in Mississippi might have that we think are seasonal allergies and no big deal. We just have to have a very heightened level of awareness that that range of symptoms is huge. And you don’t necessarily have to have fever and be short of breath and the more severe symptoms to have COVID.

So the asymptomatic piece, particularly if you’re around family members that are unvaccinated is very important. 

Dr. Dan Edney: That’s right. Being vaccinated does reduce your risk of transmission if you have an asymptomatic case. But I mean, you’re still contagious. So Dr. Woodward is right. Any of us, even if you have mild symptoms, get tested so that you can protect others.

And don’t just assume that you have allergies. If it’s different and you don’t feel well, then just get tested. And if you’re at high risk, then you may need to get monoclonal antibody treatment, but the way for us to get through this is to protect each other. 

Will Stribling: Thank y’all. Y’all just answered the question I was going to next.

Someone was asking about, you know, with it being allergy season, flu-like symptoms when they should be concerned. But if I’m correct, y’all said that it doesn’t matter, that if you’re experiencing those symptoms that you should get tested, you know, play it safe. 

Dr. Dan Edney: Yeah, especially if you feel different. You know, most people know how their allergies do, but if you’re feeling different, COVID is not going to be just like a seasonal allergy, you know.

And if you don’t have allergies and you’re having those symptoms, get tested. If you have allergies and it’s different, you’re feeling badly, you know, more than your allergies, get tested. We don’t need to test you every week during allergy season, but just as Dr. Woodward said, have a heightened sense to this.

Will Stribling: And this next question is from Ruth in West Point for Dr. Edney. Are you concerned about the mu variant, and how are you preparing for its arrival in Mississippi? I know that there are multiple variants being tracks around the world right now, but it seems like really none of them can hold a torch to Delta.

Dr. Dan Edney: Yeah, that’s it. Right now, nothing can get past Delta, and mu was not showing the transmissibility yet. We’ve seen a few cases of mu in the state ,and they just haven’t gone anywhere, which is a good sign, but, you know, mu can still change and other variants. If we don’t get our population immunity up, there will be other variants and, you know, God help us if we see anything worse than Delta. Thankfully, Mu does not look to be as bad as Delta. And we think Delta is probably going to get our population immunity up cause everybody’s going to be vaccinated or they’re going to get it. And, you know, once we get population immunity, we’ll see the fire start to extinguish.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: I have heard Dr. Dobbs say in a couple of different settings that we will get herd immunity the easy way or the hard way. 

Will Stribling: It looks like I just have time for one more question, and this is for both of y’all. It’s from Susan in Columbus. She’s asking if we have any reason to be optimistic about a return to pre-COVID behavior in the next few months. If not, what options do we have towards, you know, effectively containing the virus enough to allow a return to free living in the future?

I know no one wants to make predictions right now about when this is going to be over, but I asked you this just because a lot of people are, you know, feeling increasingly anxious about us ever getting out of this and that can, you know, inspire despair and in some cases, apathy. So I just want both of y’all to just talk about what Mississippians can do individually right now to, to hunker down and weather through the, you know, the remaining months of this pandemic, however many there are.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: Well, I’m going to try to beat Dr. Edney to the punch here because there really is only one answer and that is for us to all get vaccinated. You heard him say earlier the more we delay getting vaccinated, the more opportunity the virus has to develop new variants and new strains. And, you know, my biggest fear— he just mentioned about, you know, Lord help us

if something happens worse than Delta— my biggest fear is that we continue to piddle along like we were a month or six weeks ago with such low vaccination rates that in fact a new strain does develop and emerge that the vaccine doesn’t have effectiveness for. So that is a big concern.

However reasons to be optimistic I would say our vaccination rate is going up. I hear stories every day and these are low volume, you know, one at a time, personal stories, but I hear stories every day about a physician or some kind of healthcare worker who was in conversation with a patient that had been waiting and been delaying getting vaccinated, but finally felt comfortable that it was the right thing to do.

So these little success stories add up. We are seeing more people getting vaccinated, which is really the best thing. I would not say that it’s not just a few months out. I think we do have a few more months of hopefully dealing with the tail end of Delta. Hopefully we’re on that side of it, but I certainly feel some degree of optimism for the spring.

I hear just chatter. I don’t know anything secret or any kind of, you know special intel, but I do hear that we’re moving forward and moving in the right direction about expanding the age of the vaccine. I’m optimistic that this fall there’ll be approval for younger children down to age five.

And that is another thing that will help us, I think, perhaps have a different kind of spring. So let me stop there and ask Dr. Edney what he would add. 

Dr. Dan Edney: Absolutely. Dr. Dobbs thinks that will come off the Delta wave and probably get back to pre-Delta numbers for a while and be able to catch our breath before Thanksgiving.

And so Thanksgiving we can remember what it was like last year and that was pre-vaccination, but, you know, we can either have a sizable Thanksgiving bump or a small one. We’re going to have a bump, but it’s up to us. It’s our choice if we get vaccinated, if we get our vaccination rates and our population immunity levels up, then we should be able to cruise through the holidays okay and finish out this thing. If we don’t, then we can see, we can have another tough Thanksgiving and Christmas, not as bad as last year, but tougher than it than it needs to be. 

Will Stribling: Well, thank you, Dr. Edney and Dr. Woodward. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I’m going to turn it back over to Adam to close.

Adam Ganucheau: Thanks so much, Will. Wow. I’m blown away. I think everybody who participated today, every panelist just wants to extend just the sincerest, warmest thank you. I think I can speak for all Mississippians and say that we really appreciate you sharing your insights and your perspectives during this time. It’s a difficult one.

There’s a lot of confusion, misinformation out there, and it’s just so it’s such a relief to just hear these things from you guys and just really appreciate it. One last time, I also want to thank tonight’s sponsors, the Delta Health Alliance and The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi for their help in making this possible.

Really appreciate that. If you haven’t already please visit our website at www.MississippiToday.org for comprehensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. There you’ll find deep data dives, maps, stories about how the virus is affecting our schools and our hospital system. You’ll also find our vaccine guide, which has everything you need to know about getting the shot and protecting your neighbors.

Thank you to everyone for being here. It’s a pleasure getting to visit with you, albeit virtually and until next time from the entire Mississippi Today team, have a great rest of your night and a great rest of your week. 

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.

Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.