According to numbers provided by the Mississippi State Department of Health, although vaccination numbers against COVID-19 are rising through the state, there is still some work to be done, as only 1.24 million of the state’s residents – or approximately 41 percent – have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
To help raise those numbers, especially among the minority population, a new initiative called Pine Belt: This Is Our Shot has begun to incentivize and educate people on vaccinations, particularly in communities of color and young people.
“We’re so grateful that there are a lot of vaccination sites popping up across Mississippi, and we support those,” said Michael Marks, chair of Pine Belt: This Is Our Shot. “What is different about (us) is that we’re focusing on the community education part; the sites will be important to us, but that’s not our goal.
“Our goal is to provide people with accurate information, so that they are incentivized to get the shot and to move into action. When all of this rolled out, I think that was the missing piece: a well-designed campaign where information comes to you from people who look like you, who are engaged in everyday life, and they interact with you and you know they care about you. That’s what we’re trying to provide.”
Officials from Pine Belt: This Is Our Shot are targeting primarily the colored and young population with the awareness that the majority of seniors – 91 percent across the country – have already been vaccinated. Along the same vein, the initiative is not focusing on individuals who, for whatever reason, have decided against receiving the vaccination.
“We hope to change their minds, but they are not the focus of this campaign,” Marks said. “We truly are focusing on the people, for whatever reason, who have hesitancy for lack of information.
“It could be historical – along the Tuskegee experiments – it could be that they just don’t like shots, it could be political and social, it could be because they just don’t trust the messengers that are in the environment right now. We want to speak to all of that with a well-organized, high-media, meet-you-where-you-live campaign.”
To help spread the word, Marks and other staff members are coordinating with State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, as well as Hattiesburg Clinic physician Thad Waites, who serves as chair of the Mississippi State Board of Health. Officials also have early commitments from Dr. David C. Rhew, who serves as chief medical officer and vice president for healthcare at Microsoft and the National Vaccine Equity for funding.
With that assistance, the organization has set the goal of rounding out needed fundraising with private and corporate enterprises to provide a working, nonpartisan campaign-style “Get Out the Vaccine” model for Mississippi.
In addition, Marks is looking forward to a partnership with Brad Massey, who is a Forrest Health-affiliated nurse practitioner who will help set up vaccination sites and telemarketing capabilities.
“We have four (vaccination) dates that have been scheduled,” Marks said. “I’d rather wait to release those dates until they’ve been confirmed, but they’re all going to be in downtown Hattiesburg.
“But they will be on four successive Saturdays in the fall, beginning in October. So we look forward to that.”
Participants at each of those events will be able to receive a vaccination shot, and rapid COVID testing will be available on site.
“Then, they’re also going to have this equipment that will put you in touch, instantly, with a provider or doctor,” Marks said. “When we talk about communities of color, people say, ‘just trust your doctor.’
“Well, if you don’t have a doctor, you can’t trust a doctor. So the far-reaching implications of this transition to telemarketing is key.”
Officials from Pine Belt: This Is Our Shot are planning an upcoming conference to publicly kick off the organization’s campaign. The conference will be hosted at the Family YMCA on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Hattiesburg, and will be hosted by Matt Rumph, who serves as CEO of the YMCA.
“This is an incredible opportunity for us, and we’re just so incredibly pleased to have them on board,” Marks said.