New Omicron Variant Emerges After Gov. Tate Reeves Ends COVID-19 State of Emergency

A photo of Dr. Thomas Dobbs looking at Gov. Tate Reeves
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, right, watches Gov. Tate Reeves during a news briefing regarding Mississippi's response to the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Less than a week after Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves ended his COVID-19 State of Emergency order, the World Health Organization is warning that a new, potentially more dangerous strain of COVID-19 has emerged. In a statement yesterday, the WHO said South Africa first notified it of the variant, known as B.1.1..529 or the omicron variant, on Nov. 24.

“The variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared with other (variants of concern),” the WHO said. “The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”

The current variant, the organization said, “has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting this variant may have a growth advantage.” Though research on the omicron variant is early, current evidence shows it has significantly more mutations that previous variants, such as the delta variant, and could prove more evasive to immune responses.

Gov. Reeves allowed Mississippi’s COVID-19 emergency order, which he first enacted on March 14, 2020, to expire on Nov. 20, 2021. The order included the state’s COVID-19 System of Care Plan, which increased the medical system’s flexibility in handling patient transfers.

“With more than 3,000,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine having been administered in Mississippi and with COVID-19 infections and resulting hospitalizations being effectively managed, it is time to end the State of Emergency in Mississippi,” Gov. Reeves tweeted on Nov. 11. “It will expire on November 20.”

But some health-care workers and leaders are warning that Mississippi is facing a mounting nursing shortage that could cause the state to have 500 fewer acute-care hospital beds over the winter months. Earlier this month, Mississippi Today reported on a Nov. 5 letter that chief nursing officers at 36 Mississippi hospitals sent to the governor.

“The shortage is driven by losses in the nursing workforce which are attributable to burnout, fatigue and, to a growing extent, nurses who took travel nursing positions and made significantly higher wages and now desire to take time off,” the letter said. 

But Gov. Reeves has not responded to requests for a special session to address the nursing shortage. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Senate president, sent the draft of a bill designed to help alleviate the nursing shortage to the governor earlier in the fall.

Gov. Reeves initially planned to end the COVID-19 emergency order in August 2021, but the emergence of the Delta variant saw the collapse of much of the state’s hospital system, requiring federal and state assistance to shore up the battered infrastructure.

After news of the omicron variant’s emergence broke, President Joe Biden ordered air-travel restrictions between the U.S. and South African in addition to seven other nations.

In its announcement on the arrival of the omicron variant, the WHO said people should “take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.”

Mississippi still has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates, but Gov. Tate Reeves, along with Attorney General Lynn Fitch, is fighting to block Biden’s federal vaccine mandates in court. Fitch is challenging the federal mandates on employees at businesses with more than 100 employees and on health care workers. The issue is over government mandates; private businesses of any size have the legal right to establish COVID-19 vaccine and safety policies to protect employees and those they interact with in the course of the job.

After the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans temporarily blocked Biden’s employer mandate, Reeves celebrated on Nov. 17, hailing it in a tweet as “another victory for freedom and individual liberty.”

“Another victory for Mississippians! And another loss for Biden and federal overreach! OSHA suspends enforcement of vaccine mandate,” Reeves wrote. But the courts could still uphold Biden’s mandates once the case is heard on its merits. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected multiple attempts to block Biden’s mandates so far this year.

On Nov. 23, Reeves also tweeted boasting that “MS is one of Top 10 states in America for job recovery since the pandemic!” He listed reasons for why Mississippi ranks No. 10 in job recovery since the pandemic began, including that the state does not “force businesses to shut down” and “work(s) to protect lives AND livelihoods.”

Unmentioned in that tweet was the fact that Mississippi has the nation’s highest death rate for COVID-19, with more than 10,262 Mississippians confirmed dead since the pandemic began. Amid the Delta variant surge over the summer, Mississippi surpassed early pandemic hotspots New Jersey and New York in total pandemic deaths per capita.

Children ages 5 and older are now eligible for vaccination along with all adults. Many adults who were previously fully vaccinated are also eligible for a third COVID-19 vaccine booster dose, which could become a key tool in the fight against the emerging variant or other future mutations.

“Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast,” Biden said yesterday. “They are safe, free, and convenient.  Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season. Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today.”

Biden said the omicron variant’s emergence made “clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations.”

For more information on COVID-19 and vaccines in Mississippi, visit msdh.ms.gov/covid-19.

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