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Mississippi Has No Mask Mandate Or Enough Vaccines — And Some Still Have No Water

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly three weeks after an unusual winter storm paralyzed local utilities, some residents still don't have running water in Mississippi. Power is back now, but getting water flowing properly is proving tough. It's the latest development in a state already wrestling with high COVID infection rates and where, like Texas, the governor has just rescinded the mask mandate. Let's bring in Kobee Vance of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Hey, Kobee.

KOBEE VANCE, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Hey. So let's start with the water issue. These poor people - no water for three weeks. What is the latest?

VANCE: Well, here in Jackson, the state capital, around 10,000 customers don't have running water. In some cases, there's no water at all. In others, there's water but at greatly reduced pressure, which means it's not safe to drink unless it's boiled. And then the entire city is under a boil water notice, so every resident has to boil water even if they have water pressure.

KELLY: But I thought things were getting better. That big storm we mentioned was almost three weeks ago. What happened?

VANCE: Well, things were getting better until yesterday. One of the water treatment facilities in Jackson had a problem with its intake filter.

KELLY: Oh.

VANCE: It got clogged, and they had to have outside contractors come in to fix that. And that caused pressure to drop by half in the time that it took them to repair it. Now, today they said they've been working to repair that. And they're saying they're getting close to restoring what it was yesterday, but, you know, that's a whole day setback. And water pressure is important because if it's not high enough, bacteria can build up. Plus, it's hilly around here, and the pressure - if that pressure isn't high enough, the water can't make it up the hills. It's just a mess.

And today the Jackson City Council president, Aaron Banks, talked with me. He says they requested $47 million from the state and federal government to pay for the repairs, but he doesn't think that's enough.

AARON BANKS: But I think that that request should exceed that. I think we should need to make sure that anything that we get, it helps to fix the whole problem and not just throwing a shoe at it.

KELLY: I will note Jackson is a majority-Black city. It has wrestled with inequality. Has that been a factor that's been reflected in these outages?

VANCE: In certain areas. Many of the outages are affecting the city's white-flight neighborhoods, but the vast majority of people who are without water are African Americans. Today at the water distribution site, residents were lining up to get water - bottled water and just - and water to flush their toilets. In fact, they handed out at least 12,000 bottles of water in less than an hour. One of the people that I was talking to is Dorothy Tolar. She went through this same thing 12 years ago and thought the problem was fixed back then. But she says what's happening now is a systemic issue that's affecting all Black neighborhoods.

DOROTHY TOLAR: Behind again, behind again. You know, our well-being don't matter. Well, we used to that anyway. We used to being second anyway, so it doesn't matter. What can we do? We can't go and fight. We can't riot. We can't do none of that. We've been doing that for 400 years to get to where we still are now.

VANCE: And the city of Jackson says they still can't say when water will be restored.

KELLY: Yeah. Meanwhile, we just have about a minute left. But I know the governor there, Tate Reeves, his decision to remove the state's mask mandate - how is that going over with people?

VANCE: Health experts say it's just too early. Currently, about 15% of Mississippians have been vaccinated. But several local mayors, including the mayor of Hattiesburg, are speaking out against the governor's order to rescind the mask mandate. Mayor Toby Barker says he's still requiring people in his city to wear masks.

TOBY BARKER: We think it's in our best interest to continue that. I hope that we're close to the end of this pandemic. But at least in the case of our city, when you're in the fourth quarter and there's several minutes to play, you got to keep running plays. And we believe that our best play right now in keeping numbers low is to continue having folks wear masks.

VANCE: But one small bit of good news for the state - vaccine requirements were just expanded today. Now those 50 and older can get the vaccine.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Kobee.

VANCE: Thank you all for having me.

KELLY: Kobee Vance of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.