Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs answers a reporter’s question regarding the early start of public schools throughout the state at Gov. Tate Reeves’ COVID-19 press briefing in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. State officials provided reporters an update on the coronavirus and the state’s ongoing strategy to limit transmission in public schools. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

by Leah Willingham, Associated Press

Appointments to get the coronavirus vaccine in Mississippi opened up for everyone over the age of 16 on Tuesday, and thousands of residents rushed to book their shots.

Robin McCall made appointments for her 17-year-old twin daughters. She has a 15-year-old son who has been treated for leukemia.

“He has a compromised immune system so these vaccines for our family are very important for him,” said McCall, who got vaccinated weeks ago because she has a heart condition that made her eligible.

As of Tuesday, 592,500 people in Mississippi had received one dose of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health. Almost 60% of all Mississippians 75 and over have received at least one dose.

About 330,000 total residents in the state of around 3 million are fully vaccinated.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said he’s pleased with the progress the state is making, but that “now is not the time to be complacent.”

“When you’re in a public place, it’s still a good idea to wear a mask,” he said. “It’s still a good idea to gather in smaller groups and remember now that it’s even safer when folks are fully vaccinated.”

People can get vaccinated at 24 state-run drive-thru sites in counties across the state, at private clinics and community health centers and some pharmacies, like at Walmart and Walgreens.

Dr. Victor Sutton, Director of the Department of Health’s Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity, said Tuesday the state is partnering with six community health centers in a new initiative to try to reach populations vulnerable to the virus.

Community organizations, such as churches, will be able to call a hotline in order to host their own vaccination events.

“It’s a way to bring down the barriers,” Sutton said.

A main target for the program is Mississippi’s Black residents. As of Tuesday, 27% of the total doses administered in Mississippi have gone to African Americans. That’s up from 20% on Feb. 12. Around 64% of everyone who has been vaccinated in the state is white.

Before Tuesday, vaccinations in Mississippi were only available for anyone ages 50 and older, staff at K-12 schools, first responders, health care workers and those who are at least 16 and have health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to the virus.

McCall said her family has been on lockdown for a year to protect her son, Andrew. Leukemia left his body extremely vulnerable; two and half years ago, after receiving a bone marrow transplant, he ended up in critical condition on a ventilator because of a respiratory virus.

“When coronavirus showed up last year, we were kind of freaking out a little bit about it,” she said. “Some people may not take it as seriously or think, ‘I’m young, I’ll be fine,’ but we don’t have that luxury.”

McCall said her family will still socially-distance and wear masks even after they are all vaccinated, but having the shots will give her “peace of mind.”

Rory Tyer, 33, made an appointment to get vaccinated Tuesday. His wife, Heather, is a physician assistant at a primary care clinic in Tupelo, and already received the vaccine.

“I’m hopeful that people will take advantage of these appointments,” Tyer said, adding that the more people get vaccinated, the faster the economy and communities will open back up.

Tyer said much of his work as an executive coach and leadership development facilitator involves being in rooms with groups of people working on projects.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to do that without precautions like masking and social distancing,” he said.

Coffeeville resident Adam Golden said he also made an appointment Tuesday. Although he admitted he’s been “skeptical” about the vaccine in the past, he’s felt more confident as he’s seen numbers of new coronavirus cases go down nationwide after people started getting shots.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do so we can hope that our lives will get back to normal,” Golden, a set-up technician at an auto supplier, said. “I’m sure many people are ready to get back to normal.”

People eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine can make an appointment at COVIDvaccine.umc.edu or by calling the COVID-19 call center at 1-877-978-6453.