Misleading information about the safety and efficacy of the Moderna vaccine has led the Mississippi State Department of Health to issue an update to their vaccine hotline script this evening, after a viral Twitter thread raised serious questions about the appointment scheduling process.

The conversation in question happened Monday morning, after Bobby Wayne, a Coahoma resident, called the MSDH hotline to request the nearest appointment for his first shot of COVID-19 vaccine.

Bobby Wayne
Bobby Wayne, a retired reverend from Coahoma County, experienced a bizarre conversation with the Mississippi State Department of Health that led the agency to revise its vaccine appointment script. Courtesy Elizabeth Wayne

Much of the interaction was standard protocol for scheduling a vaccination. “She went through asking me ‘have I had a (recent) vaccine … (or) been in contact with anybody that has had the coronavirus. I said no,” Wayne, 64, a retired reverend, told the Crirec today.

Then, Wayne says, the conversation took a bizarre turn. “The lady told me, ‘I want you to know that there’s no documentation that the Moderna vaccine is effective.’ She asked if I still wanted to take it.”

Wayne was undeterred. “I told them I have cancer, and I want to get the vaccine,” he said. He added that the MSDH representative told him no appointments were available, and to call back the following morning at 7 a.m. He did, and got an appointment for later in the week.

The conversation was off-putting, though, and Wayne mentioned it to his daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Wayne, an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She found the conversation as alarming as her father had, and took to Twitter to call for accountability over the misinformation.

“So I was talking to my Dad. Apparently when trying to schedule his vaccine appt, the caller said there is ‘there is no documented proof that the Moderna vaccine works. would you still like to take the vaccine?’” She tweeted. “This is the Mississippi Health Department. I’m in disbelief.”

Immediately, the exchange struck a chord with observers, with many fearing an intentional attempt to dissuade Mississippians from taking the vaccine from an individual within MSDH. Several tagged in this publication.

In an interview with the Crirec today, Elizabeth Wayne explained that she had feared the same things. “I felt shock … I had a reaction as a daughter … I couldn’t believe that someone had said that. It felt like an inappropriate thing to say to someone calling for a vaccine appointment.

In response to the thread, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs reaffirmed the safety and efficacy of the Moderna vaccine, promising to investigate the encounter in a tweet.

Elizabeth Wayne
Dr. Elizabeth Wayne, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, took to Twitter to raise the alarm about the misinformation her father encountered on an MSDH hotline. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Wayne.

Now, in response to a Crirec query, MSDH has identified the source of the miscommunication, which itself is contained in an outdated advisory about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in certain populations.

In a statement to the Crirec, MSDH Communications Director Liz Sharlot explained the offending language. “The miscommunication was related to a script that when read out of context in scheduling appointments can be confusing,” Sharlot wrote.

That script reads as follows:

“If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or immunocompromised and are part of a group that is recommended to receive COVID-19 vaccine, you may choose to be vaccinated. You may want to consult with your physician, but it is not required prior to vaccination.

“Do you still want to be vaccinated with an understanding there are currently no available data on the safety or effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, including Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, in pregnant people, lactating people, or immunocompromised people?”

Later, in an interview, Sharlot apologized for the miscommunication and explained that the entire section had been permanently removed from MSDH’s vaccine appointment script, effective immediately.

“It was confusing, it was outdated, and it was removed. … That was a mistake on our part,” Sharlot said, adding that additional studies on the vaccines have made this advisory obsolete.

The question of what precisely was said to Bobby Wayne remains. The language Wayne describes is remarkably similar to parts of the now-removed section of script that MSDH provided. But Wayne is adamant that the MSDH representative he spoke to omitted the context around pregnant, lactating or immunocompromised individuals, turning outdated information into an unnecessary warning that was never true to begin with.

Sharlot promised to look into the matter further. “It’s hard to know who picks up these hotline calls, but we may be able to figure that out,” she said.

Elizabeth Wayne is happy that the offending language has been removed, and proud of her father for catching the misinformation and speaking up. “He remembers, when it’s important,” she said. “Dads remember everything, even when you don’t want them to.”

Bobby Wayne just chuckled. “Well, you know, I just try to do what I can.”

Nick Judin began his career in journalism at the Jackson Free Press in 2019, coming on as State Reporter to cover the 2020 legislative session. That posting quickly gave way to a year leading the JFP’s COVID-19 coverage. Nick’s reports from the frontline of coronavirus have repeatedly made national headlines, as he has asked hard questions of state leadership and done critical interviews with the state’s top public-health experts. Email the Jackson, Miss., native at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.