The Mississippi State Health Department hired an outside contractor a little over a year ago to assess how well the state responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The answer, according to the report: pretty well.
But this counters a previous report from a nonprofit that ranked Mississippi’s response last in the nation.
The new report highlights the state’s strong suits — use of data visualization, targeted vaccination clinics for underserved populations and consistently working and communicating with state and local agencies. It also lists areas for improvement, which include investing in its workforce, maintaining public information campaigns during long-term COVID-19 recovery and unifying its purchasing process.
Mississippi’s COVID-19 response, led by the state Health Department, was officially from March 2020, when the first cases of coronavirus were identified in Mississippi, until November 2021, when Gov. Tate Reeves’ state of emergency declaration expired.
And while the state-contracted report deemed Mississippi’s response to COVID-19 widely “a success,” another report by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund released in 2022 ranked Mississippi’s pandemic response last in the country.
“Due to the magnitude of the pandemic, it is likely recovery efforts will be ongoing,” the new report reads. “The recovery from COVID-19 cannot be solved by one single entity, and the responsibility is on the entire State of Mississippi to address these gaps.”
The new 198-page report goes into great detail in every pandemic response category, offering both suggestions for improvement and highlighting the state’s strengths in each area.
Drive-thru testing and vaccination sites were deemed one of Mississippi’s strengths because they “allowed for safe and efficient mass testing and vaccination.” It also noted the support the Mississippi National Guard provided at these sites, and highlighted the state’s success in vaccinating its most vulnerable populations.
But the report took issue with delays in setting up those sites, which the contractor chalked up to a “lack of coordination.” Contributing to these delays were staffing issues, brought on in part by mixed messages about working from home early on in the state’s response, travel challenges, long-hours and insufficient time off. The report recommends investing in the state Health Department’s workforce with competitive wages and training opportunities.
The state agency has long struggled with staffing — State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney said in June that the agency was experiencing a vacancy rate of over 40% across departments.
The contractor said while the state consistently and equitably shared information, it was harder to stay informed when the COVID-19 response transitioned into long-term recovery.
Data visualization was also a strong suit — during the state’s response, efficient usage of data and other technologies helped the state communicate and make decisions. However, the report notes the huge requests made of the state’s epidemiologists, an already strained staff.
The state performed well in the health equity category. Its homebound vaccination program and multiple-language outreach resources were especially praised. The report recommends that the state expand its translation services.
And while the report determined the state didn’t lose any money on fraudulent purchases, like other states and hiring a contractor to assist with submitting reimbursements worked well, the state health department’s procurement process was not unified and more robust documentation within the finance department were recommended.
The Mississippi Public Health Laboratory was generally lauded in the report, though the contractor noted it needs more resources and supplies were limited during the state’s pandemic response, and that the lab should be involved in agency drills and exercises moving forward.
The report’s findings, which will be used to improve emergency planning, are the result of research that began in November 2022, assessing the thousands of people involved with the state’s pandemic response, including employees of the health department, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Mississippi Department of Human Services, the Mississippi State University Extension Service, the Board of Animal Health, the National Guard and the Department of Environmental Quality, as well as private contractors.
Mississippi was one of the first states during the first year of the pandemic to ease masking and public crowd restrictions. Shortly after Reeves lifted the state’s mask rules, while delta wave cases skyrocketed, he said CDC indoor masking recommendations were “foolish.”
Reeves made it clear a few months ago that his opinion on masking hasn’t changed. In August, when COVID-19 cases briefly surged, Reeves issued a press release encouraging Mississippians to avoid succumbing to “fear” and said he would not be reinstating a mask mandate.
Since the start of the pandemic, 15,172 Mississippians have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mississippi’s total deaths per 100,000 people is 438.2. The national rate is 292.2, as of January 2024.
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