by Dr. Victor Sutton —
Accustomed to being last, Mississippi is rewriting its health narrative and has emerged as a national leader in health equity.
Recently, Mississippi was recognized as 1 of only 10 states where Black residents have a higher vaccination rate than white residents. Black Mississippians represent 38 percent of the state’s population, yet comprise 39 percent of Mississippi’s fully vaccinated population.
In a recent Mississippi State Department of Health / Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities COVID-19 Vaccine Confidence Research Study, 35 percent of the study’s nearly 12,000 respondents were Black. Nearly 4 percent of the total survey respondents identified as Latino (3.4 percent of the state is Latino). Mississippians of all colors are being heard and served.
This work is largely being driven by strong community-based partnerships with Mississippi’s State Department of Health Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity (OPHHE), which includes the NHLBI-funded community engagement center for the Jackson Heart Study (JHS) (the world’s largest single-site, African-American, prospective cardiovascular cohort study), the NHLBI-funded CEAL (Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities), as well as the CDC-funded Delta Health Collaborative.
I serve as OPHHE director as well as principal investigator to all aforementioned grants. I’ve made the team’s mission clear: to eliminate heart health inequities (among other chronic diseases) and to lead the state’ Black, Hispanic, and racial-ethnic minority communities through the COVID-19 Pandemic, as well as the state’s cardiovascular epidemic.
In Mississippi, more people die of cardiovascular illnesses than cancer or other chronic conditions. In fact, 20 percent more Black Americans than any other race die from heart disease each year. The JHS has made significant progress in changing these statistics.
By working with barbershops, churches, historically black colleges and universities, and other champions of the Black community, JHS is ensuring the state leverages the strengths of all its “village” members.
For the last 20 years, the focus of the landmark JHS study has been heart health. Since the pandemic’s onset, the JHS team has devoted tremendous effort, resources, and countless hours to protect vulnerable Mississippians against the deadly coronavirus.
As I have said repeatedly, “The greatest tragedy of this pandemic is that people are needlessly dying when there is a vaccine that can make the difference between life and death.”
JHS, the Delta Health Collaborative, and CEAL have provided life-saving services by joining hand-in-hand with the local community, including non-profits, faith-based organizations, private businesses, colleges, and universities. In the early stages of the pandemic, the MSDH Health Equity team took the initiative to establish mask and personal protective equipment giveaways with groups across Mississippi.
By partnering with HBCUs, such as Jackson State University, Alcorn State University, Tougaloo College and Mississippi Valley State University, vaccinations and COVID-19 testing sites were made accessible to Black and Hispanic communities across the state.
Through programs such as Shots in Shops, the MSDH Health Equity team has worked to reach underserved segments of the population by building trust, providing education, and bringing vaccinations and protective equipment to where the people are – a paradigm shift from asking the public to come to the shots.
We have partnered with local minority firms, Par’ Excelon Marketing Group and Red Squared Productions, to implement statewide Black-relevant grassroots marketing and production strategies to reach the Black community. These efforts empowered the state’s communities of color, reaching more individuals across the state and ensuring Mississippi residents have the tools they need to make informed decisions.
The fruits of these initiatives are blossoming, as Mississippi now leads the nation in the proportion of African Americans who are vaccinated against the COVID-19. Nearly 1.3 million vaccinations have been administered in Mississippi’s African American community. More than 600 thousand have received at least one dose.
The MSDH Health Equity team is dedicated to keeping Mississippians alive and healthy. We are listening to your heart and your mind.
If your organization would like to host a COVID-19 vaccination event or needs additional protective equipment, contact us at 601-206-1720 or through our online resource request form or community vaccine request form.
Visit our website at jacksonheartstudy.org.
(Victor Sutton, Ph.D.MPPA, is the Mississippi State Department of Health Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity’s director and principal investigator.)