Vaccination Hesitation: Why North Mississippians are getting Vaccinated at Low Rates

By: Shelby Maynor

Cars getting in line at the Mississippi Department of Health Drive-Thru Vaccination Site. Photo by Shelby Maynor

As the COVID-19 vaccination becomes more widely available throughout North Mississippi, many are left wondering why there continues to be an abundance of vaccination appointments unfilled. Specifically referring to Lee County, this county had about 4,433 first-dose appointments available as of last week, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. Jessica Wall, a Tupelo resident, and others credit the hesitancy to obtain the vaccination to the information the mass public is being provided by both sides of the political spectrum.

“I think the problem is widespread misinformation about the vaccines’ effectiveness and potential side effects,” Wall said. “This is not a new problem, but one that’s becoming more entrenched in our society.”

Wall was among citizens whom were actively waiting for the doses to become available in Mississippi at the start of this process when the vaccination shipments were coming in less frequently; furthermore, the doses were restricted to only those over the age of 65 or those with preexisting conditions, both classifications in which Wall did not qualify for.

“I was at work, stalking the Mississippi Department of Health appointment website for a couple of hours, refreshing the page every few seconds until slots opened up in our respective counties,” Wall said. A few weeks later scheduling an appointment no longer requires continuously watching for openings due to the quantity of unfilled appointments.

MSHD Drive Thru Clinic. Photography by Shelby Maynor

Charles Samples, owner of Associated Family Funeral Home, had to play less of a waiting game by the time he obtained an appointment for the Pfizer shot in Tupelo. By the time he was making an appointment, there were an ample amount of doses to be given out due to the availability being expanded to all citizens above the age of 16, according to the Mississippi Department of Health website.

“I feel like there are a large number of people who are still refusing to take the vaccine,” Samples said. “I’ve known many people who have recently received their vaccinations and had no issues getting their appointments for either shots.”

Mississippi has been able to vaccinate around a quarter of its citizens thus far, which in return has forced the state to fall behind most other states in respect to vaccination rates, according to a New York Times article published at the beginning of April.

Jason Shelton, Mayor of Tupelo, also asserts that politics is the main driving factor when citizens are deciding to get the vaccination or not. The City of Tupelo has about 21 vaccination sites, ranging from private clinics to the Mississippi Department of Health drive-thru site, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

“I’m not aware of the current number of open slots for the vaccine, but it has been way too high for the last few weeks,” Shelton said. “We are unfortunately experiencing some hesitancy to get the vaccine which appears to be in large part politically motivated by some with a right wing political persuasion.”

Shelton is not the only one that asserts that the Republican Party of Mississippi is hindering the mass output of the vaccination. The Mississippi government has historically and overwhelming been ran by the GOP. Those who support the GOP are more likely to distrust the government; therefore, it is unlikely that most citizens will trust politicians when they are pushing a vaccination that became politically motivated over the last election cycle, according to an article published by the Insider.

Dr. Vernon Rayford, an internal medicine doctor out of Tupelo, asserts that many people just do not know what to expect from the vaccination after the national scrutiny it has been placed under.

“There are still large sections of the community with unanswered questions about the vaccines, unaddressed concerns and who prefer vaccinations in a different setting than those provided,” Dr. Rayford said. “Many people are curious about the vaccine.”

There have been a variety of responses on how to counteract the hesitancy garnered by so many Tupelo citizens, and even citizens around the nation. Medical professions could have a huge role to play in motivating people to make appointments, according to an article on Wbur News website.

“You know, there are lots of efforts underway right now to reach out to people directly, including having primary care doctors call their patients directly or get in touch with them,” said Allison Aubrey, the writer for the Wbur news article discussed.

Dr. Rayford asserts that medical professionals can also begin to send out messages and have open conversations with their patients and with the surrounding community. A medical professional being open for discussion, could give citizens a direct line to information pertaining to the vaccination which could potentially ease his or her hesitance.

On the other hand, there are several outlooks on the situation that claim politicians should step up to fill the role of easing the hesitancy of the vaccination in society. Dr Rayford supports this notion as well due to the influence politicians have over mass opinions in the state.

“I think there is an opportunity for the elected officials in MS to promote vaccinations through their examples,” Dr. Rayford said. “There is an opportunity to be united in the effort against COVID which means being open about the risks and accepting that some strategies do work better than others.“

Once more people understand the entirety of the vaccination and its process, more people will be likely to schedule their appointment, according to Dr. Rayford. Jessica Wall noted that, for her, the entire process of getting the vaccination was relatively without hassle.

“Getting the shot at the mall was a very efficient process. The volunteers and Guardsmen who staff the site are great, and both times I was in and out in about 30 minutes even though there was a line. I never got out of my car.” Wall said. “I think an important aspect of this is cost. Vaccination is free at MSDH mass vaccination sites, like at the mall here in Tupelo, and low-cost at clinics and pharmacies.”

Tupelo, MS Vaccination Sites. An interactive map can be found at MSHD.

Herd immunity through the vaccination is the way back to a ‘normal’ society, according to Wall. Wall and her husband have both received their second vaccination shot and are looking forward to being able to go back out into society.

“My husband and I are planning to go to a restaurant for our anniversary,” Wall said. “This is our real life, and it’s almost surreal after spending a year withdrawn from all that.”

Herd immunity will only be achievable if 60–70% of the population is either vaccinated or have recently been exposed to the virus, according to Nature. Herd immunity is potentially becoming farther out of reach in Mississippi, and around the nation, with the vaccination rates remaining so low.

While many are hesitant to get the vaccine, some are holding onto hope that the vaccine might bring life back to how it was before the pandemic. Shelton is confident that everyone should get vaccinated so there can be a return to ‘normalcy,’ while others are hoping that this will prove true in the future.

“I pray that the vaccine will allow us to get back closer to a normal life,” Samples said. “But I feel that if there continues to be different strains there will always be concerns about being protected in public environments.”