Mississippi Confirms First COVID-19 Death As Schools, Legislature Close

Governor Tate Reeves - Mississippi Free Press
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said on Thursday that he is “extremely saddened” by the first known death of a Mississippi resident who was infected with COVID-19. (Photo by Ashton Pittman.)

For the first time, a Mississippi patient who tested positive for COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has died. The Mississippi State Department of Health today announced the death of a Hancock County man between the ages of 60 and 65 who had “chronic underlying conditions.”

The virus is deadliest for people who are older and who have pre-existing health disorders.

“I am extremely saddened to report this death. My heart goes out to this gentleman’s wife and family. While we knew it was a strong possibility that we would soon have a COVID-19 death, it doesn’t make it any easier to handle,” MSDH State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said in a press release on Thursday.

“Many people will survive this virus with mild to severe symptoms, but we remain very concerned for those over 65 and immunocompromised populations—those most at risk to infection from this virus.”

Gov. Reeves: ‘We Knew This Would Eventually Hit Mississippi’

The man died in a Louisiana hospital, MSDH said, on the same day it announced that the number of confirmed cases in the state had risen to 50 across 21 counties. Mississippi’s neighbor state to the west had already announced 10 deaths of its own residents and 347 confirmed cases by Thursday.

“As the coronavirus outbreak began claiming lives across the world, we knew this would eventually hit Mississippi,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a press release on Monday. “But that doesn’t make it any easier for Mississippi to lose one of our own.”

Dobbs urged Mississippians to take preventative measures to guard against the virus, including frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds at a time, staying home if ill, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding social gatherings where 10 or more people are present.

Anyone with potential COVID-19 symptoms should call their doctor or health care provider for instructions to ensure safe examination and treatment rather than going to a clinic or emergency room unannounced, Dobbs said. The medical community is hoping that steps like that will minimize strain on local medical systems and allow providers to take steps to minimize the risk of spread before a potential carrier enters a facility.

Across the state, medical experts are taking various measures to help keep health-care systems intact and prevent clinics and hospitals from becoming incubators for the spread of the coronavirus.

In Hattiesburg, about 90 minutes southeast of the capital city, medical organizations worked with MSDH over the past weekend to convert a local clinic there to one focused solely on diagnosing and treating people with symptoms that could point to the coronavirus. Physicians in the Forrest County college town told members of the press on Monday that they hoped the clinic would divert potential coronavirus patients away from local emergency rooms and other clinics to help avoid spreading the virus throughout Hattiesburg’s health care system.

In Jackson, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is preparing to launch an app that will make it easier for residents to screen themselves for COVID-19 without visiting a clinic or physician. UMMC is also working on an in-house test for the virus to deal with the fact that current testing capacities are limited only to MSDH’s lab, making it difficult for large numbers of people to get tested. Medical-center leaders there said on Wednesday that they also have the ability to expand the number of rooms available for patients with infectious diseases from 60 to more than 100 if needed.

“This is not to be taken lightly,” Dr. Alan Jones, the chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine, said Wednesday. “This will affect us profoundly. This is not another bad flu season. Schoolchildren will be reading about this 50 years from now.”

Mississippi Legislature, Schools Close Doors

On Thursday morning, Gov. Reeves announced that all Mississippi public schools will close until at least April 17 while the State evaluates the situation.

“In my nearly 17 years of serving the public it is perhaps the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Reeves said in a live-streamed announcement.

On Thursday afternoon, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann sent a letter to supporters explaining his and other legislative leaders’ decision to temporarily suspend the 2020 legislative session until at least April 1.

“It is important for Mississippians to have access to the Capitol when the public’s business is being conducted. The current known and unknown circumstances with COVID-19 have made it impossible to continue the session for now,” Hosemann wrote.

As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had reported 10,442 COVID-19 cases nationwide and 150 deaths. Those numbers are likely significantly lower than the true count, because testing capacity remains constrained in the U.S. More information on UMMC’s COVID-19 prevention measures is available online at umc.edu/coronavirus and cdc.gov/coronavirus.

The Mississippi Free Press has a map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state.

Follow Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to ashton@mississippifreepress.com.

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

With your gift, we can do even more important stories like this one.