State health leaders provide update on COVID-19 vaccinations, potential new variant

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JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV/AP) – On Friday, the Mississippi Medical Association held a virtual meeting regarding the current status of COVID-19 in the state. Within that discussion, health leaders also discussed the new COVID-19 variant that has been found populating in the United Kingdom and most recently, in the United States.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers confirmed on Friday that while the variant strain has not been confirmed or identified in Mississippi, lab tests have turned up some suspicious samples that the health department is following up on.

Dr. Byers believes the state has some cases of the variant strain that haven’t been detected yet.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs criticized the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine within the state’s long-term care facilities Friday, calling the plan made by the federal government and pharmacies contracted to give the shots “faulty” and ”frustrating.”

“We gave them too much vaccine too soon,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during a virtual briefing with the Mississippi State Medical Association, adding that the situation is now a “daunting problem” for health officials.

The Department of Health is now having conversations with CVS and Walgreens about whether some of the doses allocated to them need to be pulled back, Dobbs said.

CVS and Walgreens were allocated 47,000 doses of vaccine in December to inoculate long-term care residents, per the federal government. As of Friday, only about 14,000 doses have been administered. Mississippi has about 36,000 residents living in nursing facilities and 25,000 living in other long-term care settings.

That’s compared with 150,786 doses that have been administered statewide, according to the Department of Health. The state is using 19 drive-thru facilities, clinics and hospitals to complete vaccinations for those 65 and older, health care workers and those who are at least 16 and have health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to the virus.

Overall, Dobbs said, the state is doing “remarkably well” at vaccinating people who are not long-term care residents — the state had used 75% of its allocation for first doses as of Friday. Still, officials at the drive-thru sites and other facilities offering vaccinations have not been able to come close to keeping up with the demand.

“If we could have given them 4,000 a week like they’re using, then we could have used that other vaccine,” Dobbs said of long-term care facilities.

The state health officer said it’s been a “real challenge” as his team tries to plan for the future.

“We expected them to be done a couple of weeks ago, like maybe last week, with everybody,” Dobbs said.

Officials with CVS and Walgreens have assured the Department of Health that vaccinations will be 95% done by the end of January, Dobbs said. Department of Health officials are meeting with representatives from the pharmacies again on Monday.

Dobbs said the delay has been partially due to slow rollout by CVS and Walgreens and also to “sluggish” uptake of the vaccine, especially among staff at long-term care facilities.

For the full conversation, listen here.

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