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Drop in people seeking COVID-19 vaccine worries local officials

In January, access to the COVID-19 vaccine was limited to those of a particular age and underlying health conditions. And as those restrictions were changed, eased and eventually lifted, getting an appointment for a vaccine remained terribly difficult.

Slots were gobbled up within minutes of going online, leading many who wanted the vaccine to chase appointments and get on waiting lists wherever they could.

In February, the Mississippi State Department of Health, in conjunction with city and county officials, and a team of health volunteers, opened a drive-thru vaccination site at the former Vicksburg Mall. When it opened on Feb. 1, appointments were filled not just in hours, but minutes. As soon as openings were placed on the state’s website, they were gone.

Nearly three months later, more than 16,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered at the Vicksburg site, which has operated — weather permitting — each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

But now, with just over 25 percent of Warren County’s population fully vaccinated, demand for the vaccine has plummeted, as has the number of people getting vaccines at the drive-thru site.

“At our peak, we were handling 600-to-800 doses per day,” Warren County Emergency Management Agency Director John Elfer said. “Now, we are doing less than 200 doses per day.”

And it is not just in Warren County where officials have seen a concerning drop in those seeking vaccines.

Recently, Louisiana stopped asking the federal government for its full allotment of the COVID-19 vaccine. And in Mississippi, officials asked the federal government to ship vials in smaller packages so they don’t go to waste.

Another challenge for vaccinations in Mississippi is that in many cases, doses are being shipped in large packages with one vial containing at least 10 doses.

During a news conference in early April, Gov. Tate Reeves said state officials have requested that the federal government send the vaccines in smaller packaging so it’s not going to waste.

“If you’re in New York City, and you’re sending a package to one of the large pharmacies in downtown Manhattan, there are literally millions and millions of people within walking distance most likely of that particular pharmacy,” Reeves said. “Well, if you’re in rural Itta Bena, Mississippi, that’s just not the case.”

Elfer said he has also heard that area clinics administering the vaccine have reported fewer people seeking appointments.

“I cannot explain why people are not getting the vaccine. I mean the vaccines are available, the appointments are available,” Elfer said. “I don’t know why people are not signing up for it. Other than it’s available in more locations now.”

He said, too, that if demand for the vaccine continues to decline, then there is a chance the state would look at scaling back the number of drive-thru sites, including Vicksburg’s.

“At some point, if people are not going to come to the drive-thru site then they will have to be scaled back,” he said. “The other thing of concern, if we are not that busy it will be hard to keep these volunteers going. Nobody wants to just stand around.”

Elfer said residents need to consult their healthcare providers and physicians if they have concerns about the vaccine.

“I think people need to do their own homework and talk to their healthcare provider and ask those questions if they have concerns,” Elfer said. “Let their healthcare providers and physicians dispel any rumors.”

The Warren County drive-thru site, when it opened in February, was the first hybrid drive-thru site in the state. The operation of the site is supported by the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi National Guard but is staffed by local medical professionals who have volunteered their time to administer the shots.

As of Monday, the state showed nearly 2,000 appointments were available at the Warren County drive-thru site. For more information and availability of appointments at the drive-thru site, visit covidvaccine.umc.edu.

Through Friday, 34 percent of Warren County’s population had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 26 percent of the county’s population had received both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The county’s drive-thru site administers the Moderna vaccine.

“We are here for the long run. As long as we have vaccines, we are going to be open and giving out shots in arms until the health department says they are going to close it,” Elfer said.

About Tim Reeves

Tim Reeves, and his wife Stephanie, are the parents of three children, Sarah Cameron, Clayton and Fin, who all attend school in the Vicksburg Warren School District. The family are members of First Baptist Church Vicksburg. Tim is involved in a number of civic and volunteer organizations including the United Way of West Central Mississippi and serves on the City of Vicksburg's Riverfront Redevelopment Committee.

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