Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves grinned in front of a maskless crowd in Orlando, Fla., yesterday evening. Orange County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Charles Hart had just introduced him as “a guy who told the Democrats in his state to go stuff it” when it comes to voting rights.
The governor’s Orlando visit came exactly one month after Mississippi hit its lowest seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases since April 2020. But the Delta variant, coupled with low vaccination numbers, has since caused the pandemic to surge to levels not seen in the Magnolia State since January. The seven-day average for new cases is now up 752% since June 22, 2021.
In a month, the number of Mississippians hospitalized for COVID-19 has climbed 403%, while the number of patients on ventilators on ventilators is up 550%. But even as Mississippi’s weary public health officials and health care workers were busy fighting the pandemic’s latest wave back home, Gov. Tate Reeves was 700 miles away, regaling a partisan group with tales of his political triumphs.
‘This Is An Emergency’
In Florida, which now accounts for about a quarter of all new cases nationwide, the governor grinned Thursday as the maskless crowd whooped and cheered. Orange County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Charles Hart had just introduced him as “a guy who told the Democrats in his state to go stuff it” when they called for making voting easier in the Magnolia State.
“We Republicans think everything starts with the individual and politics start with the individual up. And you know, you talk about this situation we’re in now with COVID, the Democrats really do believe in central and centralized decision making,” Reeves told the Orlando crowd. “They believe Washington, D.C., ought to tell all of us how we ought to live. We Republicans believe the exact opposite: We believe in personal responsibility and individual freedom.”
With the governor opting for a more laissez-faire approach to the pandemic than ever before, MSDH reported 1,317 new cases of COVID-19 today—the most in a single day since Jan. 30, 2021.
The governor’s trip to Florida caps off a week of traveling to out-of-state Republican Party events, starting with his attendance at a several-days-long Republican Governor’s Association meeting in Aspen, Colo., that began at the start of the week. Reeves mentioned his attendance at the event in a July 22 tweet, writing that “Republican governors across this great country have stepped up and shown what it means to be true ‘servant leaders.’”
While the governor crossed the country this week, exasperated public health leaders in Mississippi increasingly raised alarm bells as the Delta variant wreaked havoc in a state where just 34% of the population is fully vaccinated.
“This is an emergency,” American Academy of Pediatrics Mississippi Chapter President Anita Henderson tweeted today, tagging Gov. Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn. “We need leadership in MS to step up now. FYI schools started in South MS today, masks optional.”
The seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases is now 911. On June 22, 2021, that figure fell to 107. The last time it had been that low was when it rose to 99 on April 2, 2020, just three weeks after MSDH announced the first known case of COVID-19 in Mississippi.
‘I’m Here To Fight For Mississippi’
Even amid the June lows, though, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs warned that the Delta variant had arrived in the state and threatened to unravel all of Mississippi’s progress against COVID-19. But on June 18, Gov. Reeves, while telling Mississippians to “remain vigilant,” sent a different message.
“I want to thank all Mississippians for their sacrifices over the past 15 months. Your actions resulted in a significant decline of COVID-19 cases and allowed our state to effectively manage the impacts of the virus,” he said in a statement that day. “Mississippi is winning the battle against COVID-19!”
In the June 18 announcement, Reeves said he planned to withdraw the Mississippi National Guard from COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts by July 15 and to end Mississippi’s COVID-19 State of Emergency Declaration on Aug. 15. Less than a week later, on June 24, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs warned of “ominous” signs in the data and predicted that “it will be our dominant strain in 1-3 weeks”; subsequent data suggests it already was by that time.
Gov. Reeves persisted with his prior plans, though, going on a tour with Dr. Dobbs to thank Mississippi National Guard members for their service in the fight against COVID-19, which drew to a close as planned on July 15. During a July 13 meeting with National Guard women and men in Tupelo, Reeves told reporters that he would not require schools to mandate masks as they reopen, nor would he reimplement any other mitigation measures. Mississippians could make their own choices, he said.
“The fact is, every single Mississippian has had an opportunity to get the vaccine. There are some who have chosen not to. I encourage them to do so,” the Daily Journal reported the governor saying in Tupelo that day. The governor was wrong, though; Mississippians under 12 do not currently have the option to get vaccinated.
While attempting to slow the spread of the virus, public health officials have also struggled to overcome the spread of anti-vaccine disinformation on social media, which has succeeded in scaring many people away from getting the shot. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs’ frustration boiled over earlier this week when he vented about “anti-science Nazis” and “excuse monkeys” during a Facebook live event.
Rep. Steve Hopkins, a DeSoto County Republican with a history of opposing mask mandates and other public health measures, shared the clip. He called on Dobbs to “resign immediately,” writing that “people are free to speak their mind and make their own health care choices.”
The state health officer later said he was “sorry” for “getting away from a sense of calm decorum,” but that he remains angry “because we’re gonna watch people needlessly die over the next month or two for no good reason.”
“There is a mountain of lies and disinformation that is being promulgated by a relatively small number of misinformed, disillusioned people and it’s leading folks astray,” Dobbs said on Tuesday. “It’s very difficult to watch. It’s upsetting to see this perpetual nonsense go unchallenged and I’m here to fight for Mississippi.”
Dobbs and MSDH are now recommending that fully vaccinated people who have COVID-19 vulnerabilities speak to their doctors about getting an additional booster shot to better protect them against the Delta variant.
‘We’ve Got To Start Putting Kids First’
In a letter to school administrators across the state yesterday, the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended “that all children older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks when indoors at school (unless medical developmental conditions prohibit use).”
Dr. Anita Henderson, the AAP Mississippi president, and Dr. April Palmer, the president of the Department of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the University of Mississippi’s Children’s of Mississippi, both signed the letter.
On July 9, Henderson joined Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker to discuss the Delta variant and promote vaccinations in Hattiesburg with $20,000 in giveaways for those who get the shot.
“Everyone here believes in personal choice, but we also believe in personal responsibility,” said Barker, who was a Republican Mississippi House representative before running for mayor as an independent.
Today, Henderson, who works as a pediatrician in Hattiesburg, pointed out in a tweet that “schools started in South MS today, masks optional.” MSDH reported earlier this month that several children were already hospitalized with the Delta variant, including some on ventilators for life-support.
Like Reeves, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a Republican who has urged people to get vaccinated while arguing against other mitigation measures, including masks in schools.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to start putting our kids first. We’ve got to look out for their education. Is it really comfortable, is it really healthy for them to be muzzled and have their breathing obstructed all day long in school? I don’t think it is,” DeSantis said during a press conference yesterday in Fort Pierce, Fla. “I thank God — I’ve got a 3-year-old son. You’ve got people like Fauci saying that he should be muzzled. … It’s totally unacceptable.”
In front of the GOP crowd in Orange County that same day, Reeves expressed his enthusiasm for the Sunshine state’s leader as he promised to “go after the liberals” while railing against President Joe Biden, the national debt and abortion.
“I can’t wait for Florida to re-elect Gov. Ron DeSantis,” Mississippi’s governor said.
Dr. Henderson: ‘Our Kids Deserve Better. Be An Adult’
Reeves spent little time discussing the virus yesterday evening except to promote the idea that mitigation should primarily be an individual choice. Earlier this year, he said he regretted his April 2020 lockdowns that shuttered some businesses for several weeks during the pandemic’s early days. DeSantis was one of the few governors in either party who refused to issue lockdown orders last year.
Gov. Reeves’ June decision to end Mississippi’s COVID-19 State of Emergency came after DeSantis similarly declared that Florida was “no longer in a state of emergency” a month earlier. DeSantis made that questionable announcement on May 3 as he signed executive orders banning local governments in Florida from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates. He also signed a separate executive order that day banning private Florida businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. Reeves has taken neither of those steps in Mississippi.
During his speech, Reeves compared the Florida governor’s leadership style to his own yesterday as he lambasted “centralized” governing philosophies that he claims the current White House favors.
“We are the resistance. Common sense has left Washington, D.C., but in states like Mississippi and Florida, we govern based on what you the people want because we recognize that you the people are in charge, not politicians,” said Reeves, who once responded to a 2019 poll showing that 60% support for Medicaid expansion with a defiant chant.
“I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi. I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi. I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi,” Reeves said in response to the 2019 poll that showed only 29% of Mississippians agreed with his position.
Despite continued polls showing majority support for Medicaid expansion and pleas from health care leaders saying it would help keep rural hospitals afloat during the pandemic, the governor has not budged on that issue.
The Mississippi governor similarly has not budged on his opposition to requiring masks in schools, despite deciding to mandate them last year after the 2020 summer surge drove daily case counts well above a thousand.
“Our kids deserve better. Be an adult and make the hard decisions to protect all kids in schools. Kids under 12 are unable to be vaccinated,” Dr. Anita Henderson wrote on Twitter today, tagging the governor, the Mississippi Department of Education and the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. “They depend on us to get them in school and keep them there safely #PutKidsFirst.”
‘Delta Is Different’
April 30 was the last time Reeves used his social media accounts to mention “vaccines” or “vaccinations” until July 8, when he shared information about a Mississippi Department of Transportation program offering people free rides to vaccine sites. Two more times, on July 13 and July 17, he mentioned vaccines in posts thanking the National Guard for their service, though without directly urging Mississippians to get shots.
“Delta is different,” Dr. Dobbs wrote on Twitter today, citing a new study showing that “viral loads in the Delta infections (studied) were ~1000 times higher than those in the earlier … strain infections on the day when the viruses were firstly detected.”
Today, for only the second time since April 30, Gov. Reeves used his Twitter platform to directly appeal to Mississippians to get vaccinated, quote-tweeting Dobbs with a message of his own.
“This is brand new data worth considering: Further evidence that Risks associated with NOT getting vaccinated > Risks associated with getting vaccinated,” Reeves wrote. “Make the right choice, Mississippi!!”
Other Republican governors have taken a more vocal approach amid the Delta variant’s surge. In Mississippi’s neighbor to the east yesterday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey vented her frustration to reporters and state residents yesterday. Her state took the distinction as last in vaccinations earlier this month when it fell behind Mississippi.
“The new cases of COVID are because of unvaccinated folks. Almost 100% of the new hospitalizations are unvaccinated folks. And the deaths certainly are occurring with unvaccinated folks. These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain. We’ve got to get folks to take the shot,” Ivey said. “Folks are supposed to have common sense.”
The Alabama governor declared that it is “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the national surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down. … I’ve done all I know how to do,” Ivey said. “I can encourage you to do something, but I can’t make you take care of yourself.”