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COVID-19 Has Killed More Mississippians Than the Great Influenza Pandemic

Gov. Reeves on CNN
During a Sept. 19, 2021, interview with Jake Tapper on CNN's State of the Union, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves refused to offer ideas for additional policy steps or changes he could take to better combat COVID-19 even after his state achieved the nation's worst COVID-19 death rate. Image courtesy CNN

More Mississippians have now died from COVID-19 than died during the entirety of the Great Influenza pandemic that lasted from 1918 to 1919.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reports that it has now confirmed at least 9,270 coronavirus deaths in the state since the novel coronavirus arrived in spring 2020. During the flu pandemic a century ago, the state reported 9,234 deaths. 

Data from the Mississippi State Department of Health suggest the real death toll from COVID-19 could be thousands higher due to unconfirmed pandemic deaths. The state has reported more than 12,400 excess deaths since the pandemic’s arrival in 2020.

The milestone comes a day after Gov. Tate Reeves defended his handling of COVID-19 during an appearance on CNN while also attacking President Joe Biden for mandating vaccines for businesses with more than 100 employees.

“What we ought to be talking about is, what can we do to minimize the deaths going forward?” Reeves said. “The president’s not focused on saving lives. The president’s focused on taking unilateral action to show—to show his power, to show that he’s doing something, but that’s not going to solve things.”

Nationally, the official number of COVID-19 deaths reported nationwide is also nearing the CDC’s estimate of 675,000 Americans deaths during the Great Influenza pandemic. Since 1920, though, the U.S. population has tripled, from 106 million to about 331 million in 2020.

But Mississippi’s population has grown by just one-third since the Great Influenza pandemic, which was also known as the “Spanish Flu” (even though that virus likely did not originate in Spain). 

During the pandemic a century ago, about 486 in every 100,000 Mississippians died of influenza. During the current pandemic so far, 313 in every 100,000 Mississippians is confirmed to have died, but that number continues to rise each day. It does not include more than 3,000 excess deaths that could still potentially be attributed to COVID-19, however.

Influenza epidemic in United States. St. Louis, Missouri, Red Cross Motor Corps on duty, October 1918. (National Archives)

The Mississippi Free Press broke the news last week that the Magnolia State claimed the highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation after surpassing early pandemic hotspots New York and New Jersey. If Mississippi were a country, the state would also have the second-worst COVID-19 death rate in the world behind only Peru. Tapper raised those statistics during Gov. Reeves’ appearance on Sunday.

“Governor, if Mississippi were a country, you would have the second worst per capita death toll in the world,” Tapper said. “And I’m saying, are you going to do anything to try to change that?”

The governor, who has refused to implement a mask mandate in schools and opposed other mitigation efforts, did not offer any ideas for changing his policies.

“Jake, as I mentioned earlier, deaths, unfortunately, are a lagging indicator. … When you wanted me to come on three or four weeks ago, you wanted to talk about our number of cases,” Reeves said. “And then you want to talk about our hospitalizations. Now you want to talk about a lagging indicator, which is sad.” 

“I’m trying to talk about the dead in Mississippi, is what I’m trying to talk about,” Tapper said.

Last week, Biden singled out Reeves during a speech after the Mississippi governor called the president’s employer vaccine mandate “a tyrannical type move.”

“In Mississippi, children are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis B, polio, tetanus, and more,” Biden said.

The president was referring to the state’s childhood vaccine requirements for attending public schools. Unlike other states, Mississippi does not allow religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations and rare exemptions must be granted by county health officers. The strict regimen led to Mississippi having the nation’s highest child vaccination rate for non-COVID childhood diseases.

“These are state requirements. But in the midst of a pandemic that has already taken over 660,000 lives, I propose a requirement for COVID vaccines and the governor of that state calls it, quote, ‘a tyrannical type move?’ It’s the worst kind of politics,” Biden said on Sept. 16. “Because it’s putting the lives of citizens in their states, especially children, at risk, and I refuse to give into it.”

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