TUPELO • Mississippi State Health Department officials voiced concern about the COVID-19 Delta variant during a Wednesday afternoon press conference as the state’s vaccination rate remains stagnant.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said the Delta variant, which originated in India, is increasing nationally. Mississippi is no exception.

“We are seeing increased cases in Mississippi,” Byers said. “We’re up to 29 cases that we’ve identified due to the Delta variant.”

Those cases are primarily in central Mississippi counties – Claiborne (2), Copiah (1), Forrest (1), Harrison (1), Hinds (18), Madison (4), Rankin (1) and Smith (1).

The variant is mainly being seen in unvaccinated younger people, Byers said, which can result in secondary transmission to more vulnerable individuals.

“The Delta variant and other variants at this point are sort of an unknown quantity,” Byers said. “We know that there’s going to be transmission.”

Mississippi remains the least vaccinated state in the U.S. and has fallen well behind the national vaccination rate, Byers said, with 33% of the state having received one dose and only 30% fully vaccinated. Nationwide, more than 53% of the population has received at least one dose and almost 46% is fully vaccinated.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs continues to encourage Mississippians to get vaccinated, saying “COVID is not over” and Mississippi is “still going to have problems.”

“We’ve been through a remarkable year, but now we have remarkable tools to fight back,” Dobbs said. “If we choose not to use those tools, we’re going to be the ones paying for it.”

He explained that Mississippi and the South as a whole have an “embrace for a culture of illness” that has led to lower vaccination rates.

“If we had a medication that had 1,000 times higher side effects than the vaccine, we would take it when we’re sick,” Dobbs said. “But we won’t take a very highly effective vaccine because we don’t have a preventative mindset.”

It’s not a new issue. The state faces the same challenges with breast cancer, heart attack and stroke prevention, Dobbs said. But unfortunately with COVID, politics has muddied the water.

“COVID is science,” Dobbs said. “There’s nothing political about breast cancer or heart attacks, and there’s nothing that needs to be political about COVID. It’s a virus that’s killed over 600,000 Americans and we have a tool to prevent it.”

MSDH continues to operate 19 walk-in vaccination sites across the state with no appointment required, along with pop-up sites in various “vaccine deserts,” which is an area where no active COVID-19 vaccination site is within a 15-minute drive.

Jim Craig, Senior Deputy and Director of Health Protection, said the Mississippi National Guard, which has assisted with testing and vaccination efforts for more than a year, will end their pandemic support operations on July 15.

“As the Guard winds down, we will continue to increase COVID vaccine availability in our county health departments and seek support of pop-up sites with our various vaccination partners,” Craig said.

He said that as all Mississippians long for a life after COVID, now is the time to get vaccinated.

“Today we have 14 Mississippians on a ventilator with COVID in Mississippi and we have a vaccine out there that can just about 100% keep that from happening,” Craig said. “So why not take advantage of it? Why take the risk of being one of those that end up in a hospital, end up on a ventilator or end up dying from COVID?”

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