Mississippians infected with COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status, under a new Mississippi State Department of Health order that carries the weight of law. The order comes today, directly from State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs. Under the Mississippi State Code and the ongoing state of emergency, which Gov. Tate Reeves expanded through September, willful disregard for others after infection could result in criminal penalties.
Put simply, the order mandates that “all persons residing in Mississippi must immediately home-isolate on first knowledge of infection with COVID-19.” Mississippi State Department of Health Director of Communications Liz Sharlot told the Mississippi Free Press in a late afternoon interview that MSDH urges Mississippians to get tested upon onset of symptoms or confirmation of exposure to an infected individual, and that a positive test must then be followed with 10 days of isolation, even if the case proves asymptomatic.
Even vaccinated individuals must isolate after a positive test, which would constitute a “breakthrough case” of COVID-19. Although the vaccine continues to convey strong protection against infection, and even stronger protection against hospitalization and death, experts warn that the increased viral load of the delta variant (thought to be as much as 1,000 times higher) makes the virus highly transmissible, even if the infected individual is vaccinated.
Failure to isolate after knowledge of infection is considered a misdemeanor under Mississippi State Code. However, if the disease involved is “life-threatening,” as many cases of COVID-19 in the state’s hospitals have proven to be, violation of the order is upgraded to a felony.
“Failure or refusal to obey the lawful order of a health officer is, at a minimum, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500.00 (41-3-59) or imprisonment for six months or both. If a life-threatening disease is involved, failure or refusal to obey the lawful order of a health officer is a felony, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.00 or imprisonment for up to five years or both (41-23-2),” the order reads.
Mississippi Code does enable the state health officer to make such pronouncements. “Except as may otherwise be provided, any person who shall knowingly violate any of the provisions of this chapter, or any rule or regulation of the state board of health, or any order or regulation of the board of supervisors of any county or any municipal ordinance herein authorized to be made, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,” reads the first relevant section of code.
“Any person who shall knowingly and willfully violate the lawful order of the county, district or state health officer where that person is afflicted with a life-threatening communicable disease or the causative agent thereof shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00) or by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not more than five (5) years, or by both,” reads the second.
Notable is Dobbs’ demand that “Mississippi K-12 schools are required to exclude all students and faculty diagnosed with COVID-19 from the school setting during the isolation period (as above).” The health order is a clear message to the state’s public and private schools alike that allow infected children to attend schools is a danger to public health and can bring charges.
What does not accompany the order is guidance for individuals who lose their employment through mandatory isolation after a positive test. Gov. Tate Reeves ended Mississippi’s participation in federal unemployment subsidies in spring, anticipating the end of the pandemic. But the delta variant has radically altered that calculus. Now, Mississippi finds itself in the most dire circumstances of the entire pandemic, currently the number-one global hotspot for COVID-19.