Robert Wise: David, we got our most hits on the article about the Delta variant. People are concerned. What’s your update?
David Dzielak: We noted earlier Delta variant infections could account for most Mississippi infections by mid-July. That happened in the first week of July. Mississippi has steadily moved up in the ranking of states for Covid cases per 100,000 people. The state has gone from the bottom of the case rate list last spring to just 9th from the top. Mississippi’s case rate has increased 91% in the last 14 days. Clearly Delta is the driver increasing Mississippi infections and targets the unvaccinated.
Robert Wise: Who is at the top of the case rate list?
David Dzielak: Arkansas followed by Missouri and then Louisiana. All are just across the Mississippi River or not far away. Delta is pushing them all.
Robert Wise: What are their leaders saying?
David Dzielak: Republican governors in those states have gotten more assertive. Let’s go to Arkansas at the top of the list. Governor Asa Hutchinson told the press in early July: “We’re in a race against the variant.” He said dead on that if Arkansas “didn’t get a greater percent of our population vaccinated, that we’re going to have trouble in the next school year and over the winter. So, we want to get ahead of that curve, working very hard to do that.” Governor Hutchinson was also clear that, “the solution is the vaccinations”. Amen. Mississippi as in Arkansas should wake up that the threat is to the school year and over the winter.
Robert Wise: Governor Hutchinson has been frank that his state is largely a rural and conservative with a vaccine hesitancy problem. Mississippi is the same. What is Asa Hutchinson’s strategy?
David Dzielak: Governor Hutchinson emphasizes their state is working directly with employers. He told the press: “One of the things we're going to concentrate on is working with our employers. They're really one of the keys—obviously, the medical professionals are most trusted, but the employers have an opportunity to make it accessible for them, give paid time off to the employees and they can go get vaccination and to encourage them with the right level of education and information. Those are the kinds of strategies that I think will make a difference in the coming days." Exactly right. State leaders should reach out to private businesses and doctors who are in the best position to act quickly to communicate with vaccine hesitant employees and patients.
Robert Wise: Necessity is the mother of invention. What else is Governor Hutchinson doing?
David Dzielak: Governor Hutchinson announced July 6 that he will go to the people of his state in a series of Community Covid Conversations to hear firsthand concerns and answer questions publicly and directly. He said: “I’m the leader of this state. I want to do all I can. It would be easier for me to sit back and say, ‘I’m weary of this COVID conversation.’ I’m sure everyone in this room is. But that’s not leadership. Leadership is saying, ‘Let’s plow on…let’s get through this. Let’s see if we can do a little better.” So, there is a Republican Governor going out to the people face to face to see if he can personally get the vaccine hesitant on board. I commend him. I suggest Mississippi leaders do the same.
Robert Wise: Is Governor Hutchinson taking his message to private businesses with him?
David Dzielak: Yes, on July 6 he said: “I am asking employers in our state to take a leadership role in encouraging vaccinations in the workplace. Let me emphasize, employers were the first ones to push us. ‘We need the vaccine.’ They’ve done an incredible job of leading and getting their workplace vaccinated early on during the pandemic. We need them to come back and to reemphasize the need for vaccinations in the workplace.” Right again for there and Mississippi.
Robert Wise: Okay, what is Republican Governor John Bell Edwards doing in Louisiana?
David Dzielak: Governor Edwards’ approach has been to innovate. Edwards recently announced that in Louisiana anyone age 18 or older who has received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine is eligible to enter a contest to win a Grand Prize of $1,000,000 at the end of July. Vaccine recipients ages 12 to 17 are eligible to enter to win nine $100,000 scholarships. If that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes. Again, publicity and contact.
Robert Wise: What about the Republican governor in Missouri?
David Dzielak: Missouri has a statewide case rate four times the national average. Missouri Governor Mike Parson is considering following Louisiana’s example to offer a lottery. Governor Parson though has resisted any door-to-door approach. I hope he will reconsider. Not government, but local community volunteers, including clergy, going door to door to talk directly with unvaccinated people can only help.
Robert Wise: So, your point is that if we are to get ahead of the curve on Delta in Mississippi, we need assertive leaders who will find ways to communicate directly with unvaccinated people.
David Dzielak: Yes, starting with state leaders holding community meetings to publicly answer questions and urge vaccination. State leaders also need to recruit and assist business owners, physicians, and the heads of colleges and universities, to communicate directly with their employees, patients, or students. They can urge, and if possible, require them, to get vaccinated before Delta disrupts the school year and winter begins. Let’s get to the end of surges and pandemic.
David Dzielak is the former Director of Mississippi Medicaid. Robert Wise is a Northsider.