By the next Sunday, she was dead. Her husband, also in his mid-thirties, died from coronavirus this past Saturday, according to Brian Switzer, the local coroner.
“These are deaths I wouldn’t have seen a month or two ago,” Switzer, the Harrison County Coroner, told The Daily Beast. “I’m seeing significantly younger folks this time around, but there’s still this idea that if you’re young and don’t have comorbidities, you’re not going to die.”
But as the Delta variant pushes the state’s entire health-care system to the brink of collapse, those coming face-to-face with COVID’s victims say the virus’ target has changed dramatically, from older to younger Mississippians—often healthy, and virtually always unvaccinated.
“We’re seeing more and more deaths in younger age groups,” Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs told reporters last week. “And there’s a very simple reason for that. And that’s because the vast majority of our 65-plus group have been [vaccinated]” while, he said, the rate among younger Mississippians is far lower.
Although Mississippi currently has a vaccination rate of 36 percent, the second-lowest in the country, among Mississippians over 65, the vaccination rate is more than 70 percent, according to the state Department of Health. Among those in their forties, the vaccination rate was 38 percent, while fewer than a quarter of Mississippians in their twenties and thirties had been fully vaccinated as of last week.
In the first 15 days of August, more than 45,000 Mississippians tested positive for coronavirus, according to data from the Department of Health. Just 10 percent of those diagnosed were over the age of 65. Nearly 75 percent were under the age of 50. That age group also accounts for more than half of the record-high number of hospitalizations in Mississippi. And as of Monday, 22 pediatric COVID patients were hospitalized at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, with the facility indicating in a news item that “the beds are full.”
“So we’ve got a lot more tragedy on the way. It’s very distressing,” Dobbs said.
Whereas the hope may have been that vaccination among the most vulnerable elderly population would prevent a second wave of mass death in states like this one, conversations with the local coroners called to the scenes suggest younger Mississippians are simply taking the place of older ones. In February, people aged 25 to 49 accounted for just over 4 percent of COVID deaths, according to numbers from the Mississippi State Department of Health. But while this week’s average of 23 COVID deaths a day, according to data from the Department of Health, is still way below last winter’s highs of several dozen, the percentage of the COVID dead who were between 25 and 49 has spiked to 22 percent.
Deaths in the next age group, people between 50 and 64, rose from 21 percent to 32 percent over that same period. In other words, the virus is coming for younger and younger people, even as vaccine resistance solidifies.
“I’m seeing healthy people die every day,” Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green told The Daily Beast.
This upset the seasoned coroner enough that she took to posting on Facebook about what she was seeing, begging people in her community to get vaccinated. But she didn’t keep at it for long.
“I had five deaths in one day. I’m trying to post facts and still get called names for it and get vitriol for it,” she told The Daily Beast.
Green said that nearly every call she’s had this month has been for people in their forties and fifties, most of them without any significant preexisting conditions, including a 40-year-old woman who was 23 weeks pregnant. One 52-year-old woman who’d tested positive felt bad enough to go to her pharmacy for medicine, but not so bad she didn’t think she should drive herself, according to the coroner.
Green said she was found in the driver’s seat of her car. She’d died before she could make it back inside her house.
Coroners Green and Switzer both told The Daily Beast that they have not yet seen a vaccinated person die from COVID. Just 18 percent of Mississippians who died of COVID in the previous two weeks had been vaccinated, and nearly every one of those vaccinated people who died were elderly or had significant preexisting health conditions, Dobbs said last week.
“The older patients are pretty well protected it seems. So COVID is now choosing that next cohort of patients who are available to be infected, and that happens to be the younger people, most of whom thought they were too healthy to need the vaccine,” Dr. Andy Dabbs, a general surgery specialist at Neshoba General Hospital in Philadelphia, Mississippi, told The Daily Beast. “And that has tragic outcomes.”
With just 10 ICU beds available in the state as of last week, the University of Mississippi Medical Center cleared out a floor of its parking garage in Jackson to make room for a 50-bed field hospital staffed by the federal government. On Sunday, UMMC announced plans to open a second hospital in its garage, the same day a federal team of health-care professionals was set to arrive at Tupelo’s North Mississippi Medical Center to help with a staffing shortage.
But even with appropriate staffing and beds, approximately one-third of patients admitted to the ICU for coronavirus end up dying from the illness, Dobbs said.
Although the pandemic is currently attacking Mississippi’s hospital system with unprecedented brutality, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has been timid about taking a vaccination stance that could annoy the anti-vaxxer wing of his party. On Friday, Reeves called the vaccine both “effective” and “safe” but stopped short of telling Mississippians to get it, saying instead he trusts Mississippians to decide what is right for themselves and their families.
At that same press conference, Reeves appeared both unaware of how many children in his state had died from coronavirus and, when informed, unconcerned by the numbers.
In defending his ongoing refusal to issue any form of mask mandate, Reeves said, “What you find is that it is very rare that kids under the age of 12 have anything other than the sniffles. Does it happen from time to time? Sure it does. We have had, I believe, one fatality of an individual. Could have been two. I think there’s three under the age of 18 this time, two—”
Behind him, Dobbs, the state health officer, held up four fingers. “Four so far, one this summer.”
“So for those under the age of 12, who are not currently eligible for the vaccine,” Reeves continued, “it is highly unusual for there to be any significant effects.”
But on Sunday, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, offered a strikingly different take on childhood infections, noting that, nationally, more than 2,000 children are currently hospitalized with coronavirus, many in intensive care units.
“So anybody who tries to tell you, ‘Well, don’t worry about the kids, the virus won’t really bother them,’ that’s not the evidence. And especially with Delta [variant] being so contagious, kids are very seriously at risk,” Collins told Chris Wallace in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
Children under the age of 12 have not been authorized to receive any of the coronavirus vaccines, a concern for many parents as schools start up again. Last week, more than 4,800 Mississippi students and teachers were forced to quarantine after being exposed to coronavirus during their first week back in school, and more than 1,200 students and teachers tested positive for coronavirus that same week.
Less than a day after the governor’s press conference, the number of children who’d died in Mississippi rose again, to five. Mkayla Robinson, an eighth grader in Raleigh, died of complications from coronavirus on Saturday, the Mississippi Free Press reported. Although her district began its school year without a mask mandate, it implemented one on Tuesday, Aug. 10, after more than 75 students tested positive and over 400 students and teachers were forced to quarantine that first week.
As the face of COVID’s victims change, Switzer, who initially chose not to get vaccinated, said he hopes more people will get the shots—fast.
“I wish more people could see what I’m seeing,” Switzer told The Daily Beast. “I can be kind of stubborn and hard-headed about things myself, but anybody who’s not convinced about how bad this thing is, they've just got their head in the sand about this virus.”