The board that oversees Mississippi’s universities and colleges rejected calls for a campus vaccine mandate this afternoon, with seven of the board’s nine members agreeing only to “strongly encourage” vaccines during a socially distanced Zoom meeting.

The two physicians on The Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning provided the only dissenting votes after urging their fellow trustees to support a vaccine requirement.

“We’re not here to debate vaccine versus no vaccine. We’re here to discuss encouraging versus mandating the vaccine and to provide some direction to our universities,” IHL Board of Trustees President Dr. J. Walt Starr said at the beginning of the meeting.

Since May, more than 500 university and college faculty members have signed an open letter urging state leaders, including the IHL, to mandate COVID-19 vaccines on campuses. More than 800 U.S. colleges and universities have already made COVID-19 vaccines mandatory.

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full authorization to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week, members of the University of Mississippi Faculty Senate called an emergency Zoom meeting to discuss a resolution calling for a vaccine mandate.

‘The Only Way To Help Save Some Of These Kids’

During today’s IHL meeting, trustee Dr. Alfred McNair, a gastroenterologist in Ocean Springs who is also the chief of medical staff at Biloxi Regional Medical Center, offered his views first. He said he is now seeing patients in their teens and twenties every day who are severely ill with COVID-19. Some of the young survivors in his care, he said, will be dealing with health complications “for the rest of their lives.”

“These kids are developing myocarditis. They’re developing kidney disease, and some of them are dying,” McNair told his fellow trustees. “And I really think this is a health issue—they need to be mandated to be vaccinated. This volunteer thing is ridiculous. If they had polio, it wouldn’t be a volunteer thing. … That’s how I feel about it after seeing so many of them dying in the hospital, but I’ve got maybe a skewed view.”

“When you’re getting all these unvaccinated kids together, these numbers are going to go back up,” said Dr. Alfred McNair. Photo by Russ Houston/MSU

Dr. Steven Cunningham, a diagnostic radiologist in Hattiesburg, concurred.

“We’ve tried doing this on a volunteer basis, but I really think mandating is going to be the only way to help save some of these kids,” he said. “Ninety percent of the chest CTs I’m seeing on a daily basis are from patients 40 years and younger. And they’ve all got double viral pneumonias. The ICUs are overrun.

“Here at Forrest General, we’ve got some of the government contractors here over the past several days, and some of them have even been overwhelmed with what they’re seeing. That’s just my recommendation, so I don’t know how to be more clear on that,” Cunningham added.

To date, at least 24 Mississippians between the ages of 18 and 24 have died of COVID-19 along with six children younger than 18, the Mississippi State Department of Health reports.

‘We’ve Taken Their Money; They’ve Enrolled In School’

The medical experts’ impassioned pleas did not sway their fellow trustees.

“I’ve spoken with a couple other doctors recently who think we may have peaked and may be about to see a downturn,” said Teresa Hubbard, the CEO of a truck manufacturing company. Other board members echoed her with similar remarks about the possibility that the pandemic may once again be ebbing without vaccine mandates.

Since the pandemic arrived last spring, state leaders have repeatedly celebrated declining numbers following a “peak” in cases while relaxing public-health rules, Then each time, another deadlier and more taxing wave followed within months with a higher peak than the last. The state is currently in its fourth wave due to the more transmissible delta variant combined with the fact that Mississippi has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the U.S., now just ahead of Alabama.

“But the problem I have with that is these numbers all depend on who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated, and when you’re getting all these unvaccinated kids together, these numbers are going to go back up,” Dr. McNair told his colleagues after they suggested the pandemic could recede without mandates.

Once again, Dr. Cunningham agreed with his fellow physician.

“And another issue, peak or no peak, is that you still have a significant number of unvaccinated hosts out there for the virus to jump to and mutate into the next Greek letter variant that could be coming down the road, so I think that’s something keep in mind,” he said.

Trustee Bruce Martin, the president and owner of an insurance agency, was unmoved.

“There’s a certain segment of the population that is just not going to get vaccinated, and it boggles my mind, but they just won’t do it, and us mandating it is not going to make those people do it,” Martin said. “And we’ve taken their money, they’ve enrolled in the school, and I don’t know how in the world you’re going to get people to be vaccinated by demanding they be vaccinated. They’re just not going to do it.”

But the letter from faculty across the state correctly notes that Mississippi has succeeded in having one of the highest immunization rate in the country among public-school children because the state has some of the most rigorous vaccination mandates in the country for infectious childhood diseases.

“Furthermore, universities in Mississippi already require immunization against infectious diseases such as Measles/Rubella,” the letter notes. “Extending these requirements to COVID-19 immunization for those attending public universities and colleges, a requirement that would include any existing and/or appropriate exemptions, would help protect all members of our academic communities and help us return safely to in-person instruction while setting an example for all Mississippians and the nation.”

‘Students With Those Strong Feelings May Choose To Leave’

This afternoon, Martin suggested the state would risk losing some enrollees in its colleges and universities if it mandated the COVID-19 vaccine. Many people, he said, have been swayed by vaccine disinformation campaigns over the last year.

“With all of the information that’s flooded out from everyone, I’ve got friends that are absolutely convinced that all of this (pro-vaccine) stuff is not correct. And they’ve lost parents, they’ve lost siblings, and even after all that they still would not go get the vaccine,” Martin continued this afternoon. “And so the people that are getting the vaccine, I think they’re getting it. I don’t know that you can mandate anybody getting anything.

Portrait Jeanne Luckey
“In my view, I think we should say that we don’t mandate it now and that as a board we will keep a very close eye on it and what the trends are and what’s happening,” said IHL Trustee Jeanne Luckey.

“And it’s kind of changing the rules after you take their money and after they’re enrolled in the schools … . It’s just a sad situation. I have a ton of empathy for them, but I don’t know how you’re going to get some people vaccinated.”

Trustee Hal Parker, a business executive in the construction supplies industry, agreed.

“That was well said, and I completely agree with Bruce’s point,” Parker said.

Starr, the board president, asked Alfred Rankins Jr., the state commissioner of higher education, how he thought a mandate would affect students who are already enrolled for classes.

“The possibility exists that those students with those strong feelings may choose to leave the university. It’s certainly a possibility,” Rankin said.

Trustee Ormella Cummings, who analyzes data and develops business strategies in her role as the chief strategy officer for North Mississippi Health Services, proposed moving away from talk of a vaccine mandate and toward stronger encouragement of vaccination.

“I’m wondering what we can do to strongly encourage (vaccination), and that way we don’t infringe on freedoms, but just put so much information out that that one conclusion we hope everyone comes to is that they do decide to get the vaccine,” she said.

‘No Getting Out Of That Can of Worms’

The board could always revisit a vaccine mandate “at some later date,” said Trustee Jeanne Luckey, the owner of a real estate holding company who has held multiple leadership roles in state and national Republican Party politics.

“Now I know some people will say this is late, and it’d be better to do it now. But if we mandate the vaccine now, it would be difficult to go back and say that we no longer mandate it,” she said. “In my view, I think we should say that we don’t mandate it now and that as a board we will keep a very close eye on it and what the trends are and what’s happening. And if at some later date we need to mandate it, we can do that. But once we mandate it, there’s no getting out of that can of worms is the way I look at it.”

Trustee Chip Morgan, an economic-development leader on the Delta Council, said he “fully agreed” with Luckey’s views. He acknowledged that the two trustees who happen to be medical doctors had a starkly different point of view.

“First, I’d like to say I respect the health-care providers’ views on this, and I’m glad they spoke on it,” he said. “And I really feel that probably at a later time there will be public support and universal support among health-care providers and others if this thing doesn’t plateau, and we do not see other successive pandemic-related issues come up—that we might be faced with making it mandatory.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, Mississippi officials have repeatedly talked about a “plateau,” including Gov. Tate Reeves, who in May 2020 said the state was at a plateau.

“We learned a lot from this first wave. The one thing that we learned is, unlike the state of New York and the state of New Jersey, Mississippi never had a huge peak,” Gov. Reeves said at the time—weeks before the first of three additional waves would produce significant peaks that strained the state’s medical system.

Though New York and New Jersey were hit hard and early by the pandemic in spring 2020, Mississippi will likely soon surpass New York as the state with the second most COVID-19 deaths per 100,000. New Jersey currently leads the nation with 301 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people; New York follows at 278 per 100,000 people; and Mississippi is close behind with 274 deaths per 100,000.

‘The Board Does Not Deem It Prudent’

During today’s IHL Board of Trustees meeting, Morgan said he believed “it would be unwise at this time” to mandate masks.

“I can’t imagine, after what we went through last year just discussing refunding tuitions, getting into a discussion now on a 17-year-old who was in high school three months ago and now we’re going to write his parents and tell him it’s mandatory, and now he’s got to get it done by October,” Morgan said. “And we’ve got what looks like by projected numbers several thousands of those kinds of people at our schools, and I just think at this time that would be a terrible mistake even though I fully respect what our health-care providers on this call are saying.”

IHL Trustee Dr. Steven Cunningham, pictured, joined the only other physician on IHL Board of Trustees as they voted against the other seven trustees’ rejection of campus vaccine mandates. Photo courtesy IHL

Still, the trustee said, he wanted to make it clear that the board supported the vaccine as “our best form of protection for our schools.” Medical schools and nursing programs, including the University of Mississippi Medical Center, he said, should still be able to mandate vaccines. UMMC announced earlier this summer that it would require all students and employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine by November.

“But other than that, I think we ought to say at this time it’s our view that we would not impose any requirement on the universities to mandate a vaccine.”

The trustees voted moments after, with the parade of yes votes interrupted only twice by quick but clear nos from Dr. McNair and Dr. Cunningham. Hours later, IHL released a statement, announcing that, while its members “strongly recommend” vaccination for all eligible students and employees in the state’s university system, “the board does not deem it prudent to require it as a condition of employment or enrollment, except at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and other clinical settings.”

IHL said the Board of Trustees “is following the recommendations from the Mississippi State Department of Health.”

“To date, the Mississippi State Department of Health has strongly recommended eligible students get a COVID-19 vaccine, but has not mandated, nor recommended state institutions of higher learning mandate, a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of attendance,” the press release said.

“The universities have worked diligently to encourage and incentivize employees and students to get vaccinated. They have implemented robust outreach campaigns and offered numerous incentives, such as tuition credits, dining dollars, bookstore vouchers, housing credits, gift cards and parking passes, for students who show proof of vaccination,” the release continued. “… In keeping with MSDH guidance, all universities require masks to be worn indoors and they are requiring students and employees who have symptoms or have had contact with someone who has tested positive to self-isolate and make an appointment to be tested.”

Rankins, the commissioner of higher education, said in the statement that the board “will continue to monitor the situation on our campuses and make appropriate adjustments and exceptions necessary to assist our universities during these very difficult times.”

The governor appoints members of the IHL Board of Trustees. Reeves, the current governor, has appointed three members since his term began in January 2020: Cummings, Hubbard and Gregory Rader, the executive chairman of the Columbus Recycling Corporation. Former Gov. Phil Bryant, who led the state from 2012 until Reeves took over in 2020, appointed the other six current board members.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].