Mississippi’s black communities turned on their Covid rates.  Next Up: Make Advances On Vaccines.

At its first pop-up vaccination event on April 10, the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against Covid 19 shot nearly 40 people in Shannon, a city where about 60% of its 1,800 population are African American.

Despite a fraction of the doses normally dispensed at large bulk vaccination sites, the event was a success, say organizers – a coalition of health care providers and elected officials. It took place outdoors and created a physically remote, communal atmosphere that many have missed over the past year.

“People got their shot and then said, ‘I’m going to get my wife or daughter,” said Dr Vernon Rayford, a Tupelo internist and coalition member.

The group held two more events and delivered a total of 110 doses, Rayford said. Further popups are planned.

Mississippi had already closed an oversized gap in the incidence and death rate of Covid-19 for its black residents, using community partnerships to promote masks and physical distancing, and dispelling rumors. Now health care advocates hope to expand these partnerships to ensure vaccines reach all Mississippians equally.

It seems to work. Vaccination rates are the same for black and white residents, with available government data showing a slightly higher rate for whites and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing the opposite. Mississippi is One of the few states where the black rate doesn’t lag much behind the rate for whites.

And as of mid-May, African Americans, who make up 38% of the state’s population, will be receiving 40% of the weekly doses, said state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers.

“We continue to reach parity with our cans,” Byers said during a news conference in May.

This is the final phase of Mississippi’s dramatic turnaround among black residents.

In the first four months of the pandemic, the incidence of Covid was nearly three times higher among African Americans than whites – 1,131 cases per 100,000 in black Mississippians compared to 403 cases per 100,000 in whites. Mortality in those first few months was nearly double that for African Americans – 46.2 per 100,000 versus 24.6 per 100,000 for whites, based on an analysis of weekly Covid reports published by the Mississippi State Department of Health.

“Covid revealed what many already knew in public health: that inequalities in black and brown communities have been around for a long time,” he said Victor Sutton, who heads the Health Care and Justice Division of the State Department of Health.

However, that disproportionate number of black Mississippians gradually subsided as the fall of the state and the rest of the country began to surge. Public health officials saw the per capita infection and death rate of African Americans fell below the rate of the white population. During the peak of the holiday Covid wave in mid-January, infections and deaths rose for both groups, but rates remained lower for African Americans than for whites.

State Health Department officials indicated that contact was made through churches, historically black colleges, universities and community organizations, adding to the importance of masking and physical distancing among African Americans. Efforts have also been made to reach other underserved groups, including Hispanics across the state, Indians in eastern Mississippi, and Vietnamese communities on the Gulf Coast.

While Mississippi was among the first states to drop its masking rules, the groups hardest hit by the pandemic were more open to masking and physical distancing than the general population, according to health officials.

“It didn’t get political in the African American community,” said Rayford.

In Tupelo, Bishop Clarence Parks of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance was one of the Mississippi clergymen who used his pulpit in his church and on Facebook. He lost his 91-year-old mother to Covid on April 9, 2020. Hers was among the first to be diagnosed in Tupelo.

“It gave me a sense of urgency,” said Parks. “I saw what covid was doing.”

Not only did Parks move services online and to the parking lot, but he also spoke to his congregation about how they can protect themselves, their parents and grandparents from Covid. When small groups returned to church, masks were required. He spoke to other pastors about protecting their flocks. Parks, 61, posted on Facebook when he got his Covid vaccine.

Parks estimates that around 15 of his 400-strong community were infected with Covid.

“My mother is the only one in our church who died from covid,” said Parks.

Mississippi Valley State University, a historically black school in Itta Bena, a town in the Mississippi Delta, hosted rides to hand out masks and protective information and hosted Zoom community meetings to go beyond campus.

“We’re trying to focus on the Delta,” said La Shon Brooks, chief of staff and legislative liaison for the President of the Mississippi Valley.

However, vaccine parity started slowly. When supplies were limited and appointments were set within minutes in February, African Americans received about 15% of the vaccines distributed through the state health department. As more vaccines became available, the department began sending thousands of doses to community health centers and clinics that serve large minority populations, said state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs.

“We want to make sure that we address trust and access issues,” said Dobbs during a press conference in February.

In southwest Mississippi, Alcorn State University, a historically black school, worked with the state health department and local emergency department to organize a vaccination clinic. Located in a rural county with the closest hospitals about a 45-minute drive away, the university has drawn between 160 and 200 Mississippians to every auto clinic session. The organizers even made appointments available to reach students and staff on campus.

“We draw a wide range of ages and races,” said Jennifer Riley Collins, Alcorn State’s covid response coordinator.

In recent weeks, the state health department has made increased efforts to work with community groups on smaller vaccination events and to reach home. They are also working to lead the public to pharmacies and clinics that sell the vaccine.

“We draw a wide range of ages and races,” says Jennifer Riley Collins, Alcorn State’s covid response coordinator.(Tommie Green / Alcorn State University)

Healthcare advocates remain concerned that more Mississippians of all races and ethnicities will need to be vaccinated or the state risks another wave of infections that could overwhelm health care resources.

In poll results released in mid-May, the Mississippi State Department of Health, which surveyed 11,000 residents in all 82 counties between December and March, found that 73% would likely take the vaccine, but only 33.7% of Laut state respondents as of Thursday CDC data, residents had rolled up their sleeves for at least one dose. Nationwide, the rate was 49.9%.

Among African Americans, the poll found that 56% should be vaccinated compared to 80% of white Mississippians.

“We are still in danger,” said Dobbs. “We still have a large part of the population that is still at risk.”

Even if racial equity in vaccine distribution has improved, bridging the gap between the hesitant and skeptical in order to achieve widespread immunity remains a significant challenge.

Health care workers ranked top vaccine influencers in the Health Department survey must abandon their traditional monologue roles and instead engage in dialogue to understand what is preventing the unvaccinated from getting the shots, said Dr. Jeremy Blanchard, Chief Medical Officer of Tupelo-based North Mississippi Health Services.

“We have to listen more effectively,” said Blanchard.

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