The New Albany Wal-Mart is one of 31 Mississippi Wal-Marts that will be giving COVID-19 vaccinations.
Signup is expected to begin today with actual vaccinations to start Friday. Appointments are likely to go quickly, however, because each store will only be given 200 doses per week, at least to begin with.
The Wal-Mart announcement came during a Zoom press conference Monday afternoon with Dr. Thomas Dobbs, state health officer; Dr. Paul Byers, state epidemiologist; and Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection.
Dobbs said the state is indeed seeing a downward trend in cases but emphasized this is not the time to let our guard down.
“Now is exactly the time to keep doing those simple things. Masks in public, limit social activities, keep gatherings small, outdoors,” are mantras he repeated throughout the conference.
The three reported progress in vaccinating vulnerable Mississippians but acknowledged there is still a long way to go. Dobbs said 39.4 percent of those 75 and older have been vaccinated with a first dose while 31.9 percent of the 65 and older category have also been given at least one dose. “That’s pretty remarkable,” he said.
The decision to include Wal-Mart pharmacies was made to try to balance out some gaps in state coverage, he said. They want to increase the rate in underserved or rural areas.
Now, there are 19 drive-through sites, with at least two in each health region of the state. The locations were chosen with access to highways and other accessibility criteria in mind, he said. Each should be able to handle at least 1,000 vaccinations a day, Craig added.
Dobbs said they are planning some innovative ways to further reach underserved populations that will be announced soon.
One change is to help remove barriers for older residents who may not be Internet-savvy or able to wait on phone calls for extended times. Now, when one calls the state number to make appointments, there is an option for those 75 and older to make getting an appointment quicker and easier, he said.
Dobbs said the Johnson and Johnson vaccine should come up for FDA review soon and that will be a game-changer. It will be a single-dose vaccine and easier to store. While it is only 85 percent effective in preventing contracting the virus it has been 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and death.
Dr. Byers said that 170,000 first doses have been given in the state and the total including second doses is 340,000. At the drive-through clinics alone, 117,000 have received a first dose with more than 10,000 getting their second dose.
The federal pharmacy program with CVS and Walgreen’s to provide vaccinations at long-term care facilities has been good but also has a long way to go.
Several questions were asked relating to people from outside Mississippi coming into the state to get vaccinations.
Now, people who meet the other criteria and are either residents of Mississippi or work here are eligible.
Dobbs tacitly admitted some people may be less than truthful about residency but thought it was a very small minority. He added that Mississippians are going out of state to get vaccinations themselves, often to Louisiana. He said so far only 6,677 people listing out-of-state residences have been given the vaccinations here.
When asked about second doses generally, Dobbs said the recommended window for the Pfizer vaccine is three to six weeks and for the Moderna, four to six weeks. “Get as close as you can but you have a range,” he said.
Dobbs said side effects for the second shot may be slightly worse than for the first, but people recover very rapidly.
“If you have had COVID before, the symptoms may be a little more intense,” he said. “Vaccine can’t give you COVID but it does activate the immune system and that causes symptoms.”
As to how long the vaccine will remain effective, the officials said they are thinking about a year but, in reality, “We just don’t know yet.”
Dobbs said first responders and teacher are likely to be the next group added for eligibility, but they still want to see more progress with vulnerable people. “I don’t see it this week or next, but soon,” he said. “Johnson and Johnson could be a game-changer and open it up more.”
“Now, 1.4 million Mississippian are eligible,” he said. “It comes down to supply. We can only work with what we are given.”
Right now, the state has about 1,100 enrolled providers. “Of the providers enrolled to give vaccine, if we gave every single provider vaccine equally, it would be 10 doses. That’s one bottle each. It’s just not enough.”
This past week the state received about 45,000 doses and they may be seeing a gradual increase, but he said the number will probably stay in that range. Adding Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca will help, but will complicate the question of choosing a vaccine. “We need education so people can make informed decisions,” Dobbs said.
Dobbs mixed optimism with caution. “We are making great progress. Please keep up the good work,” he said. “Wear masks. Limit social gatherings. Try to keep it small outdoors. We want to get to the summer taking as many people with us as possible. Now’s not the time to let down.”
For vaccine reservations:
Mississippi COVID-19 Hotline: 877-978-6453
7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week