While pleas to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures statewide have fallen on deaf ears, a South Mississippi pediatrician says one-on-one efforts to encourage mask-wearing and vaccinations are paying off.
Disease from the Delta variant of COVID-19 is also gone, but this is certainly not the time for Mississippians to be wary, said Anita S. Henderson, MD, a pediatrician at Hattiesburg Clinic — a member of the AMA Health System Program. Hattiesburg Clinic is the largest private multi-specialty clinic in South Mississippi, with more than 300 physicians.
“We’ve gotten a little bit of a reprieve from the Delta variant,” says Dr. Henderson, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics Division in Mississippi. “August was particularly important for us as – along with the easing of mitigation measures – we have a low vaccination rate in our area that allowed the COVID virus to spread over the summer.”
The two counties in the Hattiesburg clinic’s main coverage area saw their highest numbers of new COVID-19 cases in early August.
Forrest County, with a 35% vaccination rate and 224 COVID-19 deaths, peaked on Aug. 4 with 866 new cases. Lamar County, with a 51% vaccination rate and 120 deaths, peaked on Aug. 3 with 633 new cases.
In all, Mississippi has had about 483,000 cases of COVID-19, 9,425 deaths (87% unvaccinated) and 44% fully vaccinated, compared to 55% for the rest of the country.
“In mid-August, we had our highest number of hospital admissions, peaking at 1,667, while averaging about 30 pediatric cases per day,” said Dr. Henderson. “In mid-September, we were down to 997 hospitalizations and up to about 18 pediatric hospitalizations.”
While Hattiesburg took the brunt of Category 4 Hurricane Ida, which made landfall on Aug. 29, Dr. Henderson that the clinics were closed as a precaution. Also, the ability to transfer patients to New Orleans for more complex care was limited due to the storm and capacity issues related to COVID-19.
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There was great concern that the number would rise once the school reopened without a statewide mask mandate, but Dr. Henderson said local pediatricians’ lobbying efforts paid off.
“About 80% of our students in Mississippi have a mask mandate at their school,” she said. “We were able to work one-on-one with local school boards and school districts to implement those mitigation measures.”
While the number of fully vaccinated teens is on the rise, there was no other option but to increase, as the percentage of full vaccinations for children aged 12-17 was only 12% in July and is now around 30%. That’s compared to 45% for the rest of the US
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dr. Henderson said news of children dying or being hospitalized has boosted vaccination, but she is also concerned about the long-term effects on children who have recovered. Many exhibit long-lasting symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog, and loss of taste and smell, which has led to weight loss.
For some, this has resulted in the inability to participate in sports or play music with a wind instrument.
It has been a lot of work, but progress is being made step by step with the parents. And when she talks to parents, she tries to persuade them to get themselves vaccinated.
“They’ll often just tell me, ‘I haven’t thought about it,'” said Dr. Henderson.
It is not necessarily the case that the parents whose children she treats are against COVID-19 vaccination.
“They just haven’t taken the time to start doing it,” said Dr. Henderson. “Parents still don’t know that the COVID vaccine is free or they don’t know where to get it.”
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Meanwhile, Mississippi has the highest state vaccination rates for preschoolers in the US, estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 99.7%.
Mississippi is one of only six states that does not allow exemptions from mandatory childhood vaccinations for personal or religious reasons.
“It’s really hard to piece together the ideas that we have great preschool vaccination rates, but really bad COVID vaccination rates — and that’s the result of a very strong social media campaign of misinformation that has unfortunately reached many Mississippians,” says dr. Henderson noted that it was helpful to tell parents that her own children have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think the best way we’ve seen to fight that misinformation is honestly, one-on-one. I talk to my parents, I explain it to my neighbor,” she added. “It’s really about one-on-one conversations with someone you trust.”
In that regard, however, many Mississippians have a problem, as more than half of the state’s counties do not have a pediatrician or gynecologist, said Dr. Henderson.
“When people say ‘go talk to your doctor,’ well, a lot of Mississippians don’t have a primary care physician to talk to,” she said.
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