In its first pop-up vaccination program on April 10, the Northeast Mississippi Coalition against COVID-19 gave shots to about 40 people in Shannon, a city where nearly 60 percent of its 1,800 residents are African American.
Although a fraction of the doses given at mass vaccination sites, the event was successful, say the organizers - a coalition of health care providers and elected officials. Held outside, it allowed for the physically distant, communal atmosphere that many have missed over the past year.
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"People would get their shot, and then say, 'I'm going to get my wife or my daughter,'" said Tupelo internal medicine physician and coalition member Dr. Vernon Rayford.
Rayford said the group has conducted two more events and given a total of 110 doses. More pop-ups are scheduled.
Mississippi had already narrowed an outsized gap in the incidence and death rate of COVID-19 for its black residents, dispelling rumors that it took advantage of community participation to promote masks and physical distancing. Now health advocates hope to increase those partnerships to ensure that vaccines reach all Mississippians equally.
It seems to be working. Vaccine rates are neck and neck among black and white residents, with available state data showing slightly higher rates for whites, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing the opposite. Mississippi is one of the few states where the black rate is not far behind the white rate.
And as of mid-May, African Americans, who make up 38 percent of the state's population, are getting 40 percent of the dose given each week, said Dr. Paul Byers, the state's epidemiologist.
"We continue to reach parity with our dosages," Byers said during a May press conference.
It is the latest in Mississippi's dramatic turnaround on COVID-19 among its black residents.
Patricia Cole receives a shot of Moderna COVID-19 vaccination from a medical worker at a pop-up clinic on April 27 in Hollandael, Miss Spencer Platt/Getty Images File
In the first four months of the pandemic, the incidence of COVID-19 was nearly three times higher for African Americans than for whites - 1,131 cases per 100,000 for Black Mississippians compared to 403 cases per 100,000 for Whites. Based on an analysis of weekly COVID-19 reports published by the Mississippi State Department of Health, the death rate in those first months was nearly double for African Americans - 46.2 per 100,000, compared with 24.6 per 100,000 for whites.
Victor Sutton, who directs the state's Department of Health's Preventive Health and Health Equity Division, said, "Covid revealed what many in the public health community already knew: inequalities have long existed in black and brown communities. "
This disproportionate toll on black Mississippians began to decline, however, as Covid-19 cases began to climb rapidly across the state and the rest of the country. Public health officials found the per capita rate of infection for African Americans to fall below the rate for the white population. Through the peak of the holiday Covid-19 wave in mid-January, infections and deaths rose for both groups, but the rate for African Americans remained lower than for whites.
State health department officials pointed to outreach through churches, historically black colleges and universities, and community organizations that reinforced the importance of masking and physical distancing among African Americans. Efforts were also underway across the state to reach other underserved groups, including Hispanics, Native Americans in eastern Mississippi, and Vietnamese communities on the Gulf Coast.
Health officials said Mississippi was one of the first states to drop its mask rules, but the groups hardest-hit by the pandemic were more open to masking and physical distancing than the overall population.
"It didn't get political in the African American community," Rayford said.
In Tupelo, Bishop Clarence Park of the Temple of Compassion and Salvation was among Mississippi pastors who used its pulpit in both their church and Facebook. He lost his 91-year-old mother to COVID-19 on April 9, 2020. Hers was one of the first cases diagnosed in Tupelo.
"It gave me a sense of urgency," Parks said. "I saw what Kovid was doing."
In addition to taking church services online and in parking lots, Parks made it a point to talk to her congregation about how to protect herself, her parents and grandparents from COVID-19. As small groups came back inside the church, masks were required. He talked to other clergy about the safety of his flock. Parks, 61, posted on Facebook when he got his Covid-19 vaccine.
In his congregation of 400, Parks estimates that about 15 became infected with Covid-19.