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'Everybody has a network in this': NE Mississippi community leaders and members spearhead vaccination efforts

OKOLONA • It didn’t take much to convince Willie Ivy to get vaccinated.

After losing his mother to COVID-19, Ivy wanted to be vaccinated in her memory. It’s what she would have wanted for their family.

“COVID-19 is really killing a lot of people from around here,” Ivy said. It was a Sunday, and he and approximately 50 others were queued to receive a dosage of the Moderna vaccine as part of mobile vaccination event at Zion Spring Missionary Baptist Church in Okolona.

The Prairie resident said the mobile vaccination site was about half the driving distance as the nearest state drive-thru site, located in Lee County. Ivy’s aunt let him know about the vaccination event. He said he felt it was worth the trip to help keep his family safe.

MORE: Q&A with Dr. Victor D. Sutton,  director of MSDH Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity

“I got a son and a daughter, and I really am around them a whole lot, so that’s why I wanted to come out,” he said. “I hope I’m not the only one taking the vaccine … I hope I can get through to a lot of people to take it.”

The pulse of the community

The April 18 event was organized by the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19, a grassroots coalition of Northeast Mississippi community members and groups working to bring vaccines directly to the people. Across the state, community partners like them are playing a vital role in addressing barriers for minority and rural populations, Dr. Victor D. Sutton, director for the Mississippi State Department of Health's Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity told the Daily Journal via email.

“They understand the pulse of the community and what barriers exist,” Sutton said. “Community partners are able to help coordinate efforts on the ground as we work to provide resources to address the needs of the community.”

Tomika Townsend, one of the organizers and founding members of the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19, recognized the need locally after her own mother couldn’t get a vaccination appointment scheduled for two weeks.

“I started looking and figuring out there were no sites anywhere around, so she was going to have to go to Batesville,” Townsend said. “I reached out to Dr. (Nancy) Hooks, Dr. (Vernon) Rayford and Project ELECT, and we decided we had to do something.”

They formed the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19 with partners such as Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance, Project ELECT, Hooks Diabetes and Medicine Clinic, Eliza Pillars Registered Nurses of Mississippi, church leaders and state representative Rickey Thompson.

As Black leaders, Townsend said they’re trying to relate to the communities they’re serving.

“As they come in (to mobile vaccinations) and they see folks that look like us, they’re more friendly, they’re more apt to get it,” Townsend said. “The most important thing is to work with the community leaders … We want to get as many vaccinations into the arms of as many Mississippians as possible.”

Already a Project ELECT member, Dr. Vernon Rayford, a Tupelo-based internal medicine/pediatrics physician, became part of the coalition as a way to continue his work for better health in the community.

“If you bring the vaccine to people, the effort as well as the engagement speaks to groups, and people who were on the fence are deciding to get the vaccine through those efforts,” Rayford said. “We know that we couldn’t deliver all the vaccines in the area, but we hope our little part – 30, 40, 50 vaccines at a time – adds to all of the other efforts in the community.”

Bringing the vaccine to people

Some initial barriers to vaccinations for minority and rural populations include general access issues. Lack of transportation is often a problem, as is a sparsity of vaccine access among rural providers. Minorities may also lack access to the technology needed to make appointments; intermittent broadband access or long wait times can create barriers for communities already suffering from disparities, Sutton said.

Carolyn Jones, director of the MMFA, recognized those barriers in her own community. She said there was a reasonable amount of skepticism, even fear, of the COVID-19 vaccines among the members of her community. Without regular church services – always an anchor for passing information word of mouth – Jones said it was harder for the people around her to get information.

Because Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses each, Jones worried that many older members of her community would be unable to get fully vaccinated, even if they wanted to.

“We are in rural America. There’s no public transportation, so they have to wait until someone can get off work to take them or someone can get them to and from the site,” Jones said. “By it being a double doses, that’s twice that someone is going to have to take them to and from the site.”

After other coalition members approached MMFA about being a site, Jones decided it was important to help. The first mobile site was held in Shannon on Saturday, April 10.

“We were on board with it because their goals basically mirrored our goals as far as getting the vaccine out into the community and making sure our people are safe," Jones said.

The day of the event, volunteers served as security and parking attendants. Each volunteer was a member of the community, which helped reassure those receiving the vaccine. Jones and her husband received the vaccination at the site, and she knows many who came wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine anywhere else.

Submission to the cause

Nollen Elzie Sr., pastor of the Zion Spring Missionary Baptist Church worked to bring the coalition’s second mobile vaccination to Okolona. Elzie knew many people living in the rural area lacked adequate access, so he started a conversation with Dr. Rayford about helping them fill the need. He worked with other pastors in the area, including Daniel Gladney, pastor of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Egypt; and James A. Cook, pastor of Life Line Baptist in Okolona and president of the Aberdeen/Monroe County Chapter of the NAACP.

Cook was excited to see what was happening at mobile vaccinations. He met with the coalition to bring a vaccination site to Aberdeen and Okolona. After partnering with Aberdeen religious, city and civic groups, the coalition hosted a vaccination site at the Parks and Recreation Building in Aberdeen on May 1.

“Many of us prayed that the Lord would send a remedy, and through doctors, through medical science, God answered our prayers,” Cook said. “It’s imperative that as a people we submit ourselves to this cause of being vaccinated.”

As a pastor, Elzie saw his role in the vaccination process as using the innate trust people have in the church to raise awareness and spread the word through their members and out into the community.

Elzie said he’s seen many in his own congregation suffer from COVID-19. A few even died.

“It’s just an emotional hurt when you have to deal with funeralizing people that you’re known so long and been under your leadership, so that’s one of the other reasons that we were really pressed to get this done,” Elzie said.

Elzie’s own church performed outreach through word-of-mouth, on Facebook, and through their text ministry, which sent out announcements when the vaccine was available to both members and the broader community. He asked members to help others who weren’t vaccinated to make appointments.

Many of those people attended the April 18 vaccination event.

“I hope that we will be able to reach out to the African American (population) because we are the ones who are behind when it comes to the vaccination,” Elzie said. “I think one of the greatest things that we are presenting here today is that we have so many African American professionals, doctors, nurses, to put a face on this effort.”

‘Everyone has a network in this’

Everyday community members are also playing a role in encouraging vaccinations. Robert Hall, the chairman and founder of Project ELECT Tupelo, said his work is very personal. His best friend died from COVID-19, and his loss drives Hall to ensure Project ELECT – group of about 12 Black medical professionals, educators, bankers, pastors and regular community people – does its part to prevent future deaths.

During the pandemic, health committee leaders Drs. Eric Lewis and Rayford organized informational videos with community partners in response to COVID-19’s high death rate among African Americans. Once the vaccine became available, Hall said it was “time to really try to get shots in people’s arms.”

Project ELECT shifted their efforts with COVID-19 conversations, where they invited other Black doctors and leaders to discuss topics such as children, mental health and women’s health amid the pandemic.

With the formation of the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19, Hall realized everyone brought their own expertise and connections to the table. He hopes they can connect with other people who share the same vision for success.

Hall said there are “advocates who we will never see,” people who do their part at home by finding vaccine openings, calling people in the community and signing them up for vaccination appointments.

“That is great, and those are people you will never see them out and about, you’ll never hear their name,” Hall said. “We’ve been able to talk to people like that and encourage them to continue. Everybody has a network in this.”

The voices here

That message resonates with the Calhoun City Rotary Club. It's members created an ad campaign to showcase different individuals — Hispanic, African American, white — who received the vaccine.

The Rotary Club already has a commitment to eradicating polio, but international Rotary leaders sent directives encouraging local clubs to get involved with COVID-19 vaccinations.

“We are the voices here of what we do locally,” Club President Danna Johnson said. “I understand there is a lot of resistance, but I think our commitment as a club would be to promote the safety of the vaccine.”

Jim Dobbs, a Rotary Club member since 1988, pitched the idea as a way to encourage people to be vaccinated without being confrontational. Joe Carnaggio, a member since 1979, is worried “Calhoun might be lagging behind” and that vaccination rates among younger age groups may be lower.

Both Dobbs and Carnaggio scheduled their vaccinations for nearby sites in Lee and Lafayette counties, choosing whichever was closest and earliest. Dobbs said older age groups may be more interested in vaccinations because COVID-19 is more fatal for those their age group, and they historically grew up with vaccines.

“This building, there’s a stairwell up there, and we lined up to the second floor (to be vaccinated),” Dobbs said. “We got polio, we got smallpox, we got whooping cough, we got measles. You name it, we got vaccines for it.”

However, the new variants worry him about the potential of COVID-19 cases rising again.

“I think the hard fact is that we’re not out of the woods yet” Dobbs said. “COVID is still here, it’s still a problem, and we need to act accordingly.”

A long way to go

According to Sutton, the Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity has worked with numerous individuals and organizations – faith-based leaders, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, community health centers, local city officials, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HeadStart, Latin Business Alliance (LABA) Link, Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, Mississippi Dental Society, housing authorities, UnitedHealthcare, Magnolia Health and others across the state – to spread awareness of the importance of vaccination in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

To address barriers among rural and minority populations, the Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity assisted with translation of information into multiple languages and worked with community partners to help individuals book appointments and coordinate transportation. They worked to increase capacity with local communities with initiatives such as a partnership with historically Black colleges and universities that now serve as vaccination sites, Sutton said.

They also developed a Mobile Community Vaccination Initiative in partnership with community health centers to bring vaccination access to communities lacking dedicated vaccination providers.

Despite their efforts, Dr. Victor Sutton said there’s still a long way to go.

“We have only been able to work in a few pockets of the state, but we are looking to expand our reach and ensure that every Mississippian has the necessary access to services to address their needs,” he said. “We want to continue to build partnerships to address any and all gaps that exist in communities in need,” Sutton said.

Providers in Northeast Mississippi are also working to fill these gaps. Before mobile vaccinations, Townsend and Hooks began offering vaccinations every Wednesday at Hooks Diabetes and Medicine Clinic. Once they decided to go to rural areas, Hooks Diabetes and Medicine Clinic served as the provider for mobile vaccinations.

Through the mobile vaccinations, Townsend and Rayford hope they can do their part to reach underserved communities. Because of the success of the first two mobile vaccinations, the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19 has brought on a second provider, physician assistant Tia Beasley, to provide more mobile sites.

“It’s very organized, well put together. I think it’s thinking outside of the box of traditional medicine, with the appointments and everything. It’s like hey, we’ve opened our doors, let’s get Mississippi vaccinated, that’s the whole goal,” Beasley said.

Beasley plans to do the same work as the coalition. Her team, which includes herself, nurses, and Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19 organizers, has been approved by the MSDH to go into rural areas and provide vaccinations. She’s especially focused on access for those who don’t have cars. In Marks, a town she’s been requested to come to, the county hospital is permanently closed.

“Going into that population to get them vaccinated is important,” Beasley said.

The Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19 will also return to Mt. Zion on May 22 to provide second doses of the Moderna vaccine and give first doses to people who haven’t yet received one.

‘Necessary work’

Though the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19 is satisfied by their work, organizers acknowledge it takes concerted effort. Getting volunteers was easy, but it was difficult finding a vaccine provider willing to deliver vaccines in a mobile setting, Rayford said. There were many steps, regulations and requirements the coalition had to take care of on the backend to make getting the vaccine the day of as easy as possible.

The efforts paid off in real time on April 18 as people lined up to be vaccinated. 

After debating whether she would get vaccinated at all, Diane Collins of Okolona ultimately decided to receive her first dose after hearing Rev. James Cook, her pastor at Life Line Church, encourage members to vaccinate. Overa Foard of Prairie came because Rayford, her doctor, suggested it, and she trusts him.

Rayford said that kind of community response is worth the effort. It’s what drives him to keep going.

“The ultimate feedback is, ‘I’ve decided to get the vaccine after listening to your talk,’” Rayford said. “It’s necessary work, and I’ve been blessed with lots of support to help it all fit together.”

Mississippi politicians are capitalizing on loopholes in state’s campaign finance law

JACKSON • Former Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall was already retired from public service by last year, but he continued spending a significant chunk of campaign cash accumulated over a long career in elected office.

He used campaign funds for personal expenses such as phone bills, a storage unit, a hotel room, groceries and “Wine & Spirits.”

In January — about a year after his last day on the job — the Republican terminated his campaign account, which still showed a balance of $106,479.85. In his final report to state elections officials, he did not specify what he would do with the leftover money.

“I’m going to be able to spend this money however I want to spend it,” Hall told the Daily Journal this week. “Some of it is going to be able to go to charities, it already has. But I’m going to be able to have that flexibility."

Loopholes persist in state campaign finance laws

Hall’s actions highlight two loopholes in the state’s notoriously loose and confusing campaign finance laws. First, politicians can legally use their campaign funds for personal reasons as long as it’s money they raised before 2018, when reforms took effect banning the practice. Many veteran lawmakers and other politicians have large sums of this old rule-free money stashed away, as the Daily Journal has previously reported.

The second loophole — which has never before been publicized — allows a politician to stop filing disclosure reports with the Mississippi Secretary of State even if they have funds remaining in their campaign account. This means the public might never learn what a candidate or politician does with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in leftover campaign cash, even though the law suggests they’re not supposed to touch it.

“There is no requirement that disbursement of all remaining funds be made before a termination report may be filed,” Kendra James, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Michael Watson, confirmed in an email.

A ‘messed up’ law

The law’s language and guidelines around Mississippi’s campaign finance reporting don’t line up. On a campaign finance reporting form provided to candidates by the state — as well as the “2021 Campaign Finance Guide” posted on the secretary of state’s website — it says candidates must have “zero cash on hand” if they want to stop reporting financial information.

Yet the law itself does not include this “zero cash” requirement. Instead it says a candidate can terminate their reporting duties if they have no outstanding debt, and will no longer receive or disburse money from their account.

A separate section of the law — which addresses money raised since the reforms took effect in 2018 — says politicians can terminate their reporting obligations and leave the leftover money in the campaign account. This suggests the money must stay in the account untouched.

James said if a politician or candidate starts using this leftover money again after terminating their account, they would be required to file a new report with the secretary of state.

“This is the most messed up statute I’ve ever dealt with,” said Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, referring to the state’s campaign finance laws. “You’ve got a couple different sections that are very confusing and seem to conflict with each other.”

Hall says he ‘followed the law to the letter’

Hall has spent at least some of the money that was still in the campaign account when he filed a termination report — and he plans to use the rest.

The former highway commissioner said he moved $10,000 of his campaign funds into his tithe account, which he uses to make donations to his church and other nonprofits such as the Boy Scouts and the Special Olympics. The remaining $96,000 or so is now in his personal bank account, he said, and he’s not sure how he’ll spend it.

“As best I know, I have followed the law to the letter,” said Hall, who represented the Mississippi Transportation Commisson’s central district since 1999, and previously served the Mississippi House and Senate.

He added he doesn’t plan to file another report with the secretary of state, despite making disbursements from the campaign account to himself since he terminated.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s terminated,” Hall said of his campaign account. “I honestly reported where (the money) was on the date of that termination.”

Hall’s wife, Jennifer, handled his campaign finance reporting. She said she would have filed her husband’s campaign finance termination report sooner, given he retired a year ago, but the couple was distracted with an illness and the pandemic. She said she had followed the law, noting pre-2018 money can be used to pay for anything, including personal expenses.

“I’ve always gone above and beyond to report everything that needs to be reported,” Jennifer Hall said.

Loophole means less public reporting transparency

Most Mississippi politicians zero out their campaign finance accounts before filing their termination report with the secretary of state, revealing how they spent any leftover money.

Some report giving to charities or other candidates and political causes, as they are allowed to do with newer campaign money. And some closing their old pre-2018 campaign accounts spend the money on personal items — or simply cut themselves a check — a practice that’s illegal in many other states and at the federal level.

Numerous politicians still have tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in their old pre-2018 accounts. Gov. Tate Reeves has the most saved up, at nearly $2 million. The ability to terminate their reporting obligations with money still sitting in the account raises questions about whether many of these Mississippi politicians — similar to Hall — could pocket the leftover money yet never reveal they had done so in a public filing.

Hood, the Ethics Commission director, said it’s “absolutely” time for lawmakers to fix the state’s campaign finance law, including closing the loophole allowing politicians to terminate their account with leftover money still in it.

“You’ve got a couple sections of the law that seem to conflict with each other, and that conflict needs to be resolved,” he said.

Tupelo leaders celebrate opening of newly renovated Oren Dunn City Museum

TUPELO • Residents of the All-America City will now be able to understand Tupelo’s story a little better.

City officials on Friday morning conducted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly revamped Oren Dunn City Museum located at Ballard Park on Rutherford Road.

For the past year, the museum has undergone a massive renovation with new exhibits, including ones that explore the city’s rich musical history and tell the story of President Franklin Roosevelt famous visit to Tupelo in the 1930s.

“This tells the timeline of how the city of Tupelo really transformed from being one of the poorest cities of the poorest regions in the entire United States to what we have become today,” Mayor Jason Shelton said.

The renovation was funded through money that was originally set aside for the city to host events throughout 2020 to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary. But with the onset of COVID-19, those events had to be cancelled.

So the city leadership repurposed the funds to renovate the museum.

“We felt like it was important that we invest in the future of Tupelo somehow, but also remember our past with the sesquicentennial,” Neal McCoy, the director of the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said. “Naturally, it just fit that we invest in our museum.”

The first official day that people could tour the museum was Saturday, May 1, which coincided with the city’s annual Dudie Burger Festival.

The general public can now go to the museum Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost for entering the museum is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for children under 12 years old.

Leesha Faulkner, the curator of the museum, told the Daily Journal that after so many volunteers and supporters have dedicated nearly a year rehabbing the facility her “heart was full” now that the public can tour the facility.

“We’re just getting started,” Faulkner said. “There's no telling what we’re going to do next. But whatever we do, we're going to have fun.”