When it comes to getting the coronavirus vaccine, Mississippi residents have a wealth of options. There were more than 73,000 slots on the state’s scheduling website on Thursday, up from 68,000 on Tuesday.
In a way, the growing number of appointments in Mississippi is cause for celebration: it reflects the increasing supply that has led states across the country to open up eligibility to anyone over the age of 16.
However, public health experts say the pile of unclaimed appointments in Mississippi exposes something more worrying: the large number of people who are reluctant to get vaccinated.
“It is time to do the heavy lifting that is required to overcome the hesitation we encounter,” said Dr. Obie McNair, an internist in Jackson, the state capital, whose office has plenty of vaccines but not enough buyers.
Though access remains an issue in rural Mississippi, experts say the state – one of the first to open the permit to all adults three weeks ago – could be a harbinger of how much of the country is in the Will Face Coming Weeks When Growing Supply Allows Most Americans Who Would Like The Vaccine To Have Appointments Easily.
The hesitation has national implications. Experts say that between 70 and 90 percent of Americans must be vaccinated for the country to achieve herd immunity. At this point the virus can no longer spread through the population.
In terms of vaccination rates, Mississippi still has a long way to go: only a quarter of all residents have received at least one dose, according to the state, compared to the statewide average of 33 percent. Other southern states, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia, have similarly low vaccination rates.
A closer look at Mississippi’s demographics explains why hesitation can be particularly pronounced. The state reliably elects Republicans, a group that remains very skeptical about the coronavirus vaccine. Almost half of all Republican men, and a total of 40 percent of Republicans, said they did not plan to vaccinate, according to several recent surveys. These numbers have changed little in the months since vaccines first became available. In contrast, only 4 percent of Democrats said they won’t get the vaccine.
Another contributing factor to the state’s low vaccination rate could be Mississippi’s large black community, which makes up 38 percent of the state’s population but accounts for 31 percent of the doses administered, according to the state. Reluctance to vaccinate remains somewhat high among African Americans, although doubts and suspicions – largely due to previous government abuses such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments – have declined significantly in recent months.
According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation published last week, about 55 percent of black adults said they had been vaccinated or were planning to vaccinate soon. That’s an increase of 14 percentage points from February, which is a rate of 61 percent versus Hispanics at 64 percent.
A number of other heavily republican states are also facing an abundance of doses. On Thursday, Oklahoma officials who have provided 34 percent of its residents with at least one dose announced they would open the license to non-state residents, and in recent weeks Republican governors in Ohio and Georgia have raised concerns about lackluster vaccine demand among their residents.
Tim Callaghan, assistant professor at Texas A&M University School of Public Health and an expert on vaccine skepticism, said more research was needed to determine the reasons behind the declining vaccine demand in Mississippi. The Americans were probably the first to face the problem. “If you want to see vaccine hesitate, it will be in red states like Mississippi,” he said.
April 9, 2021, 5:04 p.m. ET
Mississippi officials are aware of the challenge. On Tuesday, Governor Tate Reeves held a press conference with a group of medical experts who tried to dispel some of the misinformation related to the vaccines. They tried to explain the vaccine development process, refuted claims that the vaccine can cause miscarriages, and shared their own personal experiences after receiving the shot.
“I had about 18 hours of turbulence,” said Governor Reeves, describing the mild, flulike symptoms he felt after his second injection. “But I could go on and go on and work and I feel a lot better every day knowing I have been vaccinated.”
Access remains a challenge in parts of rural Mississippi, especially among African Americans who live far from drive-through vaccination centers in urban areas, which account for roughly half of the doses administered by the state. The scheduling system has also proven frustrating for the poor and elderly, who often lack internet access to book appointments or take them to remote vaccination sites.
“We need to get the vaccines to the people, to pop-up locations that don’t require internet or advance registration,” said Pam Chatman, the founder of Boss Lady Workforce Transportation, a system of minivans that drove ferries Mississippi Delta residents to mass vaccination sites.
Demand among African Americans is still robust, she said, noting long lines that formed outside a tent in Indianola, a small town in the Delta this week, that was selling the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine. (The tents with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require two doses, were almost empty.)
But hesitation is common. Dr. Vernon Rayford, an internist in Tupelo, said he was frustrated with patients who gave various reasons for rejecting the vaccine. They claim it will give them Covid-19 or make them sterile and they worry about unknown effects that could appear decades later. “I’ve heard some really crazy theories,” he said.
Dr. Rayford, who sees patients of all races, said he has noted subtle differences in skepticism: African Americans express suspicion of the health care system while whites express a more amorphous distrust of the government. “It’s like that line from ‘Anna Karenina’,” he said. ‘All happy families are equal; Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ‘“
Dr. Brian Castrucci, President of the de Beaumont Foundation, which focuses on public health, has worked to allay such fears. Dr. Castrucci, an epidemiologist, is particularly concerned about young Conservatives, ages 18 to 34; He cited a recent poll that found that 55 percent of Republican women with college degrees under the age of 49 would not be vaccinated.
“His polls like this one keep me up at night,” he said.
The biggest barriers to greater vaccine adoption are the misinformation that thrives on social media and the mixed news from Republican governors confusing people.
“By easing Covid restrictions, elected leaders are pushing coronavirus narratives in states like Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia that work against a narrative that promotes the urgency of vaccinations,” he said. “And unfortunately, our vaccination campaigns are being rolled back late at night on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.”
So far, Mississippi health officials have focused much of their vaccine delay efforts on African American and Hispanic residents through partnerships with churches and health clinics. Governor Reeves, a Republican, has so far refused to highlight the skepticism among white conservatives in the state, but health officials said they planned to address the issue through Facebook and Zoom meetings with local organizations.
Public health experts say that well-crafted messages are needed from doctors, religious leaders, and other individuals trusted by a particular community. Dr. Thomas Friedan, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who participated in a focus group of vaccine-reluctant Trump voters organized by the de Beaumont Foundation last month, said participants wanted their fears to be recognized and they longed for factual information without being instructed or belittled. “There’s no real way to communicate about vaccines, but you need multiple messages with multiple messengers,” said Dr. Friedan, who leads the Resolve to Save Lives health advocacy group. “And people don’t want to hear from politicians.”