Dr. Thomas Dobbs, was appointed the state health officer with the Mississippi State Department of Health in December 2018. He is an infectious diseases physician, who has 20 years of experience working in the public health, with specific expertise in tuberculosis and HIV.
Dobbs served as a regional health officer in Mississippi from 2008-2012 and as state epidemiologist from 2012-2016. From 2016-2018, Dobbs worked as a clinician and chief medical officer/chief quality officer for a local health system. In addition to his role at the Department of Health, Dobbs is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Population Health, where he teaches courses in epidemiology and health policy.
He earned a B.S. in applied physics from Emory University in 1992, a medical degree from the University of Alabama School of Medicine in 1996 and a master’s in public health, epidemiology, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health in 2000.
How many cases of COVID have been reported in Mississippi and how many have resulted in death?
“333,180 cases with 7,502 deaths from COVID.”
What is driving the increase in COVID numbers in Mississippi? Do you expect the numbers to get worse?
“Mississippi is witnessing a frightening surge of COVID due to the emergence of the Delta variant. This strain is twice as contagious as what we saw last year. The natural immunity from COVID infection is not very good at fighting off the Delta variant, and the vaccine is slightly less effective (~88 percent for Pfizer and Moderna). We have far too many non-immune and unvaccinated people in Mississippi. Around one-fourth of our kids have had the virus before, leaving the vast majority totally vulnerable.”
Why are seeing this fourth wave, resurgence, of COVID?
“It is a combination of factors: the emergence of the Delta variant, our low population immunity due in large part to our low vaccination rate, and increasing social activities associated with our return to normalcy.”
Are we going to be taking additional measures once again?
“We will have to take measures soon to preserve hospital capacity. Expect additional recommendations for masking for certain situations and guidance to limit indoor social gatherings.”
Why is the number of vaccinated people in Mississippi low?
“Fortunately, over one million Mississippians are already fully vaccinated. There are certainly many reasons why our vaccination rate is low, and we do not understand all of them. Vaccine is widely available and totally free in many settings. Access is not the major barrier. Too many Mississippians are hesitant about the vaccine or still in the “wait and see” mode. Some hesitancy is based on normal caution, but too much is driven by outright nonsense. Falsehoods and bizarre conspiracy theories have squeezed out the truth in many circumstances. Another factor is the strong sense of individual freedom in Mississippi, and we respect that.
“The truth is – the vaccines, especially Pfizer and Moderna, are extremely safe and highly effective.”
What is the No. 1 thing people can do to protect themselves from coronavirus?
“Get vaccinated, absolutely. But we know that masks and avoiding indoor social gatherings can help prevent people from getting COVID. This is especially important for people over 65 or living with medical issues.”
How effective are vaccines against coronavirus?
“Pfizer and Moderna are around 95 percent effective against the old strains of COVID and about 88 percent effective against Delta variant. Johnson and Johnson is less effective. We are learning however that some people, particularly those with weakened immune systems, may need a booster to get the optimal effect.
“Keep in mind that 88 percent is not 100 percent, so we will see cases in those who have been vaccinated. But we know that vaccinated people who get COVID have significant protection from severe illness and death.”
At what age are vaccinations recommended?
“We recommend everyone 12 and older get vaccinated against COVID. COVID is bad for everyone and even kids get sick, and rarely die. It is especially important for those 65 and older or with medical conditions get vaccinated.”
Does it matter which vaccine against coronavirus that a person receives? Is one better than another?
“Pfizer and Moderna are more effective but require two doses. Although rare, some serious side effects such as cerebral blood clots and Guillain-Barre syndrome are associated with Johnson and Johnson but not Pfizer or Moderna.”
If you are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, how likely are you to get coronavirus? If you should get it, would it be a milder case?
“Over 90 percent of all new cases are still in unvaccinated Mississippians. Yes, some vaccinated people will get COVID. We know that even if you get COVID after the vaccine, the severity of illness will be less. This is similar to what we see with the flu vaccine.”
How effective are masks and hand washing against coronavirus?
“Masks are more important than hand washing, but neither are perfect. Medical grade masks are clearly more effective at preventing infection. We know from studies in medical settings that when staff wear surgical masks consistently and properly, there is a major reduction of transmission.
“One of the most important things to do is keep it outdoors. COVID does not spread very well outdoors.”
Do you foresee another lockdown and mask mandate?
“I definitely do not foresee any type of lockdown. We have learned so much and know how to prevent COVID without damaging our economy. I would be surprised to see a state mask mandate but suspect some localities may follow this path.”
What do you recommend for students under 12 returning to the classroom?
“Most children absolutely need to be in the classroom this year. It is critical for their development. From last year’s experience, we learned a ton about how to conduct in-person school safely. If kids can maintain at least 3 feet separation and wear a mask – we see very little transmission. Our highest risk activities are those where kids are interacting indoors, without a mask. We have released K-12 guidelines aligned with the Centers for Disease Control, but the choice of preventive measures is the choice of each school district.”
How taxing is this pandemic on Mississippi’s medical community?
“It’s been really tough. We’ve lost thousands of nurses and the doctors I talk to are exhausted. We are headed into the fourth wave with a weakened medical response capability. Many intensive care units are already full and many patients can’t get transferred to where they need treatment for any illness. It’s going to be dangerous few weeks ahead.”
While COVID-19 is a relatively new virus have decisions been based on scientific data?
“We have strived to make all decisions based on the best available science and data. It’s been a bit of a challenge in that our understanding has evolved with time. We have discovered a phenomenal amount in a short period of time.
“We are now seeing cases in younger people – the prior thought was that only the elderly and immuno-suppressed were getting sick and dying. The majority of our current cases are in youth and young adults.”
Is it safe for childbearing age women and pregnant women to take the vaccine?
“Yes, and this is supported by the American College of OBGYNs. COVID vaccines do not cause infertility. Not only is there no identified risk, but a growing body of evidence shows that vaccinated women get pregnant at the same rate as unvaccinated. Men maintain the same sperm counts regardless of vaccination status.”
Can you discuss the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), which records injuries from vaccines and COVID?
“The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System is used to see if we see something from a vaccine that is more common than expected. All of the things reported to VAERS are not from the vaccine. In fact, only a minuscule amount are. Of course, people have medical issues randomly at time periods after vaccination. Using this system, we have been able to find the very rare occurrence of cerebral blood clots and Guillain-Barre from Johnson and Johnson.”
How many of America’s physicians have been vaccinated?
“96 percent, according to the American Medical Association.”
How does the number of deaths from flu vaccine complications compare to the number of deaths from COVID vaccine complications?
“Of all the post-vaccine deaths investigated in Mississippi, zero were caused by the vaccine. There maybe one out there but we haven’t found any. Mississippi has fully vaccinated over 1 million people.”
“Are there dangers associated with mRNA vaccines that protect against infectious diseases such as coronavirus. Some people worry that the coronavirus vaccine process was rushed.”
“No. mRNA vaccine science is not new or worrisome. Scientists have been developing these types of vaccines for over 10 years. These vaccines do not change your DNA and are degraded by the normal process that your body uses to degrade all types of mRNA. The process to make these vaccines was more efficient but not rushed. All the normal steps were taken to reach the emergency use authorization phase. We anticipate full FDA approval of these vaccines in the near future.”
Dr. Dobbs, did you ever expect to go through a pandemic in your life?
“Not exactly, but we had been preparing for it for many years. Most planning assumptions were for a new flu pandemic, but the principles are largely similar.”