By Will Stribling
The latest surge of COVID-19 cases in Mississippi, caused by the Delta variant, is also hitting the state’s younger population, increasing concerns over the return to schools next month.
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted Tuesday that seven minors have been hospitalized due to Delta infections in Mississippi, and two of them are now on ventilators. The earlier strains of COVID-19 were much less transmissible and did not infect children to the extent seen with the Delta variant.
Over the past three weeks, the number of confirmed Delta cases in Mississippi has increased nearly sevenfold, up from 29 to 231. Those 231 cases only represent a small surveillance sample though, so it is undoubtedly only a small fraction of the Delta infections in the state.
During an interview on SuperTalk Radio’s Gallo Show on Monday, Dobbs predicted that infections in younger people will cause a large wave of infections and negatively impact school district plans to reopen fully with in-person instruction.
“It’s going to be disruptive,” Dobbs said. “I think Delta’s going to take its toll on having a successful, vibrant school year because kids are going to have to be quarantined, they’re going to have to be isolated. We’re going to have outbreaks and all that kind of stuff.”
What those outbreaks look like will be dependent on virus circulation in a school district’s surrounding community and individual districts’ policies on mask wearing and social distancing, since no requirements will be coming at the state level.
“Governor Reeves has no intention of requiring students or staff to wear masks when they’re in school this Fall,” Reeves’ press secretary, Bailey Martin, said in an email to WLBT this week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance on Friday, urging schools to fully reopen in the fall, naming safe in-person instruction as a priority. The agency said all people who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks while inside school buildings, and classrooms should maintain a physical distance between students of at least three feet. However, they also said that schools should forgo the distance recommendation if it would prevent them from reopening fully and instead rely on other prevention strategies.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said on July 9 that MSDH will release Mississippi-specific components to back-to-school guidance, which will include recommended mask wearing for unvaccinated teachers and students.
The differences between individual school districts’ approaches to limiting virus spread can already be seen in their back-to-school plans. Masks will be required in all Jackson Public Schools, for example, but Clinton and Madison County schools will start the fall semester off with masks being optional.
Oxford and Lafayette school districts will also start the fall semester with masks being optional.
The vast majority of minors in Mississippi are not currently vaccinated. According to MSDH, only 6% of 12-15 year-olds are fully vaccinated, and only 13% of 16-17 year-olds are. Despite the wide availability of vaccines and the risks posed by variants, Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the share of its population that has been vaccinated. With over 2 million shots administered, only 31% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated.
A component of MSDH’s plan to increase the number of inoculated minors is making vaccinations available in schools. Every Mississippi school district has the option to partner with a vaccine provider to give shots on-site, though it is unclear how many will utilize the opportunity.
“We hope that they all take advantage of it,” Dobbs said.
New recommendations released by MSDH last week in response to the Delta surge urge all people 12 and older to get vaccinated. Dobbs has said that the risk for severe outcomes among infected minors is small, but is still present, and there is a much larger risk that they will spread the virus to someone more vulnerable.
“Most (infected minors) are not going to be hospitalized. There will be some severe illnesses, and we’ll probably sadly see some more deaths in young folks, but it’s not that common,” Dobbs said.
The surge of Delta infections Mississippi is experiencing is already hitting hospitals and ICUs. While hospitalizations are nowhere near their February peak, the increase in recent weeks has been sharp. Between June 26 and July 10, hospitalizations increased 128%, from 97 to 222. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs has increased 155% over the past week, from 33 to 84.
Dobbs said that the increase in hospital and ICU admissions is straining the hospital systems in parts of the state, like Jackson and Hattiesburg, that have seen non-COVID procedures fill up their ICUs.
“There’s not a lot of slack in the system,” Dobbs said.