Mississippi health officials, in a stark reversal, announced new recommendations on Friday to combat the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, urging older and chronically sick residents to avoid crowded indoor spaces.
The highly contagious Delta variant became the dominant variant in the United States this week, accounting for about 52 percent of infections. It is spreading just as states have lifted most, if not all, pandemic restrictions.
Studies suggest that vaccines remain effective against the Delta variant but public health experts say it poses a serious threat to unvaccinated populations. Only 33 percent of Mississippi residents in the state are fully immunized, tied for last with Alabama.
All residents with chronic underlying medical conditions avoid all indoor mass gatherings.
All residents 12 years of age and older receive a Covid-19 vaccination.
In addition to asking people to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to wear a mask in public until they do, the state is now asking vulnerable people to take extra precautions, Dr. Dobbs said.
“For the time being, if you’re in one of these high-risk groups, it is very wise for you to avoid indoor mass gatherings where we are going to see significant transmission,” Dr. Dobbs said.
Health officials said that they hope that the new guidelines will help slow the transmissions they’ve seen spreading out from church groups, summer school classes, enrichment programs and outbreaks in nursing homes.
“We’re going to remain vulnerable for a long time,” Dr. Dobbs said. “I don’t think we’re going to have some miraculous increase in a vaccination rate the next few weeks.”
Over the last week, the state has averaged about 250 cases per day, a 91 percent increase from the average two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database.
Hospitalizations have increased by 34 percent from two weeks ago. No county has reached the mark of 50 percent of its residents fully vaccinated, and Smith County has the lowest vaccination rate, at 21 percent.
Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has no intention of putting in place mask mandates, or restrictions, a spokesman said Friday night, emphasizing that these were simply recommendations.
Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist, offered a grim forecast of increased cases and hospitalizations in the coming weeks. He said 95 percent of the cases identified in the last month and 90 percent of hospitalizations and deaths have been among unvaccinated people in Mississippi.
“It’s a disturbing and concerning trend that we’re seeing,” he said. “We’re certainly moving in the wrong direction.”
Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden’s chief coronavirus advisor, said if he were in a place with vaccination rates as low as Biloxi, Miss., he would consider wearing a mask.
Dr. Fauci is fully vaccinated. But on Sunday in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said that in parts of the country with low levels of vaccination and rising coronavirus caseloads, he might “go the extra mile to be cautious enough to make sure that I get the extra added level of protection.”