Mississippi Now No. 1 in All-Time COVID Deaths Per 100,000, Dethroning New Jersey

First Lady Elee Reeves watches as Governor Tate Reeves speaks behind a podium
Mississippi now leads the nation in COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 since the pandemic began, surpassing early pandemic hotspots New York and New Jersey in recent weeks. Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here with Mississippi First Lady Elee Reeves in 2020, has rejected calls for stronger public health measures throughout the delta variant wave. He is vowing to sue the Biden administration to stop vaccine mandates on business with more than 100 employees, which he compares to "tyranny." Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

Mississippi now leads the nation in COVID-19 deaths per 100,000, usurping New Jersey, an early pandemic hotspot that until last week had held the title for 15 months. The Magnolia State claimed the unenviable title following a month in which the delta variant surge pushed hospitals to the point of collapse with coronavirus patient levels at all-time highs for both children and adults.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs predicted the state would exceed New Jersey earlier this month, shortly after Mississippi surpassed the nation’s earliest pandemic hotspot, New York, which now ranks third in COVID deaths per 100,000. But it did not have to happen, he stressed.

“In Mississippi, we’re complacent about being last, aren’t we? And if you see some folks out there, they’re saying this is inevitable, people are going to die, it’s not worth trying,” the state health officer said during a Sept. 3, 2021, Mississippi State Medical Association roundtable discussion. “That is a loser mentality, right?”

Since COVID-19 arrived in the Magnolia State in March 2020, the state’s COVID-19 deaths per 100,000, also known as the crude death rate, has climbed to 306 per 100,000 residents. New Jersey, now in second place, has reported 292 deaths per 100,000 residents, while New York, the nation’s earliest pandemic hotspot, has reported 269 COVID deaths per resident.

Those numbers are based on calculations of the crude death rate (meaning using total deaths in each state and 2020 Census data. Some organizations that track COVID deaths per 100,000, such as The New York Times, still show Mississippi slightly behind New Jersey because they still use older Census estimates for those calculations. Those older Census estimates, however, do not reflect the fact that Mississippi lost population over the past decade while New Jersey gained population.

‘The Power Of Lies Is Unbelievable’

“It’s bad. It doesn’t have to be this way,” Dr. Dobbs said during the Sept. 3 MSMA press conference. “In Mississippi, we shouldn’t be complacent. We should use our tools to advance. And this isn’t just in COVID. This is in every health care arena.”

At the start of the delta-variant surge in July, Mississippi ranked no. 50 nationwide in COVID-19 vaccination. The Magnolia State has since risen to 46th place, now leading Alabama, Idaho, West Virginia and Wyoming. About 41% of Mississippians are now fully vaccinated. Nationally, about 55% of Americans are fully vaccinated.

During the MSMA press conference, Dr. Dobbs attributed Mississippians’ reluctance to get vaccinated or take other precautions to the spread of disinformation on social media.

A white man wears a mask with the words: "This was preventable"
Since the pandemic arrived in the Magnolia State in March 2020, the Mississippi State Department has confirmed over 9,000 COVID deaths. The actual death toll is likely thousands higher. Seen here, A man in downtown Petal, Miss., wears a face mask with the words “This Was Preventable” in May. Photo by Ashton Pittman

“The power of lies is unbelievable, and the people who are lying when this is all over will pay no price for the lies they’ve spread, right? When this is all over, and we’re doing the pick-up, every decision that you’ve made, that you guys made as doctors, is going to be there, and the people who are out there lying have no consequences for the harm that they’re causing,” he said. “If you spread a lie, you’re contributing to that lie. I really feel strongly about that.”

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported an additional 85 COVID-19 deaths today, including, as is common, ones it identified from recent weeks that had not yet been reported. With today’s report, the state has officially surpassed 9,000 COVID-19 deaths, with more than 1,000 deaths in the past 22 days alone.

“I would’ve hoped that we would’ve been the love thy neighbor state, but we really haven’t embraced that as a philosophy when it comes to spread COVID,” Dr. Dobbs said during the MSMA discussion.

Despite Mississippi’s high COVID-19 rates, Gov. Tate Reeves is vowing to join other Republican governors who plan to sue the Biden administration over President Joe Biden’s vaccine or testing mandate for business that have more than 100 employees. “This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants,” Reeves tweeted on Sept. 9.

Excess Deaths Surpass 12,000

Mississippi’s actual COVID death toll is almost certainly thousands higher than the 9,061 officially confirmed: MSDH has recorded more than 12,000 excess deaths since spring 2020.

“Excess deaths” measures how many more people have died from all causes in a year compared to the average number of yearly deaths in recent years. In a September 2020 press conference, Dr. Dobbs said MSDH was “almost certainly undercounting” deaths due to “conservative” counting procedures.

Between 2017 and 2019, an average of 32,526 Mississippians died each year. That number rose to 40,203 in 2020, amounting to 7,677 excess deaths. Prior to that, the worst year for excess deaths in the state’s recorded history had been 1918, when that figure rose 7,312 during the Great Influenza pandemic that year.

Dr. Thomas Dobbs
“I would’ve hoped that we would’ve been the love thy neighbor state, but we really haven’t embraced that as a philosophy when it comes to spread COVID,” said Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, seen here watching Gov. Reeves during a news briefing regarding Mississippi’s COVID-19 response in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

In the first eight months of 2021, 24,564 Mississippians died compared to an average of 20,229 during an equivalent period during the three years preceding the pandemic. That brings this year’s excess death toll so far to 4,335 lives, and the pandemic-era excess death toll to more than 12,000. Currently available death data only go to Aug. 14, 2021, and does not yet include any deaths from this month.

Mississippi did not confirm its first COVID-19 case until almost two weeks after the New York and New Jersey outbreaks began. Like most other governors across the nation, Mississippi Gov. Reeves ordered a lockdown with social distancing mandated, albeit under pressure to do so. But while New York and other states that were hit hard in the first wave continued to keep stricter public-health measures in place afterward, Reeves began relaxing many measures in May and June 2020.

“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 on May 27, 2020.

At that time, Mississippi ranked No. 15 in per 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, and New York still ranked No. 1. But starting the next month, New Jersey would take the lead as three successive COVID-19 waves, including the current one, would pound Mississippi hard with peaks like the one Gov. Reeves thought his state had avoided. Meanwhile, East Coast states that had been hit early kept more restrictions in place and often experienced less severe surges.

By the start of 2021, Mississippi ranked No. 8 in per 100,000 COVID-19 deaths after being devastated by the summer and fall 2020 surges.

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