On Friday, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Hobbs, along with State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers and senior deputy and director of the Office of Health Protection Jim Craig, gave an update on the state’s increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

Over the past few days, Byers said, the state has seen an average of about 6,000 to 7,000 cases per day.

On Friday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported an additional 6,774 cases and 16 deaths.

Of those cases reported on Friday, 135 new cases were in Hancock County.

“We have high transmission of COVID-19 in all parts of the state and the cases have been rapidly rising,” Byers said. “If you look at the cases that have occurred between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, during that time frame, we had almost 30,000 cases. If you go back, over a two-week period, we’ve had almost 50,000 cases that have occurred.”

Byers said that there has been some increase in the number of deaths, but not to the extent seen in previous waves.

Byers said that the Omicron variant is driving up the number of cases throughout the state.

“We know that Omicron is much more infectious than the previous strains of COVID-19 that we’ve seen, even more infectious than the Delta variant,” Byers said. “Right now, about 73 percent of our overall samples that are being sequenced in the state are Omicron. So it is the predominant strain that we’re seeing right now. For most individuals, it does cause a milder infection, but the sheer number of cases that we’re having right now will drive the increases in hospitalizations and drive increases in deaths and we do anticipate that we will see some increased deaths in the coming weeks.”

Most of the new cases, Byers said, are in individuals between the ages of 25 and 39, as well as 18 to 24-year-olds.

“Where the severity of the illness is, is still in those individuals over the age of 65,” he said. “About 65 percent of our overall deaths in the month of January have been in individuals 65 and older. Certainly, we see a majority of our hospitalizations occurring in those age groups as well.”

Byers said that like with recent waves, the “majority of those deaths are still occurring in individuals who are unvaccinated.”

“More than 70 percent of our deaths over the last month have been in unvaccinated or only partially-vaccinated individuals,” Byers said. “Only two percent of our deaths have occurred in individuals who have been fully-vaccinated and have received a booster. That booster dose is going to continue to be important. It’s going to be important for everyone going forward to stay up-to-date with vaccination as recommended by MSDH and CDC.”

Up-to-date meaning received both the first and second doses, as well as a booster if eligible, he said.

Byers said that vaccinations lessen the severity of infection if one does become infected.

“But for those individuals who are exposed, if you’re up-to-date with your vaccinations, you do not have to quarantine,” he said. “We recommend additional precautions, wearing a mask for the next 10 days, watching your symptoms, and certainly getting tested at day five after your last exposure.”

Byers said the MSDH is working on updating its guidance — in accordance with the latest from CDC — for K-12 schools and will be meeting with school officials in the coming week.

Craig said that there is a “great” demand for testing, both over-the-counter and at facilities. MSDH has expanded its testing facilities throughout the state.

Individuals can schedule testing at MSDH facilities at www.covidschedule.umc.edu or calling the COVID-19 hotline at 877-978-6453 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

Craig said that this week, there has been about a 64 percent increase in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 confirmed cases.

Byers said there is a need for additional ICU space throughout different areas of the state because it’s more than just COVID. There’s trauma, heart attacks, strokes, and other critical injuries, and illnesses.

“We are continuing to receive reports from hospitals that they’re still experiencing staff shortages, especially in their nursing services,” Byers said. “We also understand that physical ICU beds are still available, but many of them cannot be opened due to a lack of staffing.”

Byers said that the COVID System of Care plan is still active in the state of Mississippi, but the mandatory rotation of critical care patients is not currently active.

Dobbs said that vaccination continues to be important.

“We’ve seen how phenomenally useful that is in helping people from becoming ill and also having severe illness,” he said. “There is a growing body of data that strongly supports that having a booster dose not only does provide additional antibodies and protected immunity from the Omicron variant, but as we’ve seen, only two percent of the deaths we’ve seen in the past month are related to those who have been boosted.”

At present, Dobbs said there is a “limited” supply of monoclonal antibodies available to the state.

“As soon as they’re made available, they have been distributed immediately from the federal distributor to locations throughout the state,” he said. “This week, we were allocated less than 900 doses of monoclonal antibodies. And if you consider the tens of thousands of cases we’ve had, you can see the severe disparity between demand and supply.”

Dobbs said that MSDH is recommending that physicians target those for treatment that are at the highest risk, those who are older, who have chronic conditions, or weakened immune systems.

Dobbs said the state has received oral antiviral medications, 480 doses of Pfizer’s Paxlovid and 2,220 doses of molnupiravir.

“There are oral medications that are antiviral that have been shown to really help folks with COVID,” Dobbs said. “If we look at the molnupiravir, it reduces a risk of hospitalization or death by about 30 percent and if we look at the Paxlovid, it’s going to be closer to 90 percent. But again, these are in limited supply. We are having them distributed primarily to our COVID centers of excellence, hospital partners and their clinics, and also to our community health center partners.”

Dobbs said the state also received about 1,300 doses of the preventative antibody called Evusheld, which he said is being distributed to the state’s comprehensive cancer centers and UMMC’s transplant center.

“This is going to be for folks who will not respond to the vaccine because they are on active cancer treatment or severe immunosuppression or transplant patients,” he said.

Find booster and vaccination information at https://msdh.ms.gov/c19vaccination

Third vaccine doses and booster doses are now available through county health departments for those who qualify. More information at https://msdh.ms.gov/boosters

The Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) is now scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations for children 5 to 11 years old.

The latest COVID-19 guidance and protective steps to take are also online at http://HealthyMS.com/covid-19.

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