After months spent rebuffing critics who said he should issue a statewide mask mandate to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tate Reeves announced today that he will issue an order requiring Mississippians to wear face masks while in public across the state for two weeks.
“I know I want to see college football. The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize that wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be, and I promise I hate it more than anyone watching today, is critical,” Reeves said during a press conference with State health officials in Hinds County today.
Concerns about losing college football games helped convince some lawmakers, including Reeves, to retire the Confederate-themed state flag over the summer.
With 51 school districts set to resume classes this week and another 49 next week, the governor also announced that he will delay school reopenings until Aug. 17 in counties with more than 200 cases and 500 cases per 100,000 residents, including Bolivar, Coahoma, Forrest, George, Hinds, Panola, Sunflower and Washington. Schools in Mississippi’s other 74 counties will open as planned.
The governor’s delay orders do not include Alcorn County, where Corinth High School has already quarantined 91 students and teachers after their exposure to six students who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The number of students quarantined or sick with the virus already accounts for about 16% of the high school’s entire student body. The school reopened one week ago today.
The order also does not include the Jackson County Public School District on the Gulf Coast, which is set to reopen tomorrow but has already reported COVID-19 cases among five students and four teachers.
‘Monday Morning Quarterbacking’
Since early July, Reeves has issued mask mandates only in the counties with the worst outbreaks, starting with only eight. More than three dozen of Mississippi’s 82 counties are now under a mask order, though some localities implemented their own weeks or months ago.
When Clarion-Ledger reporter Jack Bologna asked Reeves why he waited until nearly five months into the pandemic to issue a statewide mask mandate, the governor grew angry.
“You don’t write anything if it’s even remotely positive. And I understand, that’s OK, you’re interested in selling papers,” Reeves said.
The Ledger should have noted that the Mississippi State Department of Health reported fewer cases over the past three days than during the same stretch a week ago, the governor said.
Reeves did not mention that four days ago, MSDH reported 1,775 new cases—the most Mississippi has reported in a single day since the pandemic began. The governor also did not mention that, three days ago, Mississippi reported 52 COVID-19 deaths, also breaking that single day record.
“There are a lot of people who get to sit back, who get to watch, who say if he’d just done this, if he had just done that, we’d be good,” Reeves said, accusing critics of “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
Reeves claimed that, if he had issued a statewide mask order months ago instead of taking a piecemeal approach, it would have failed because many Mississippians would not have complied.
But in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, implemented a mask mandate in May as he reopened his state’s economy. While cases have increased some in recent weeks after going down in June, most Virginians followed the orders, and that state’s daily raw case numbers remain lower than Mississippi’s, even though Virginia’s population is about three times as large.
Mississippi’s Ever-Escalating COVID-19 ‘Plateau’
During the press conference today, Reeves said that there are signs of a COVID-19 plateau in Mississippi. It’s a claim he has made before.
“What we have seen is a peak that is … also probably a plateau, more so than a steep peak,” the governor said on April 21, as MSDH reported 204 new coronavirus cases and 14 more deaths.
A week later, on April 28, MSDH reported 248 new cases and 10 new deaths as the governor’s shelter-in-place order expired, and Reeves said again that Mississippi had hit a “plateau.” He added that he did not expect early May reopenings for restaurants, including businesses, to result in a substantial uptick in coronavirus infections.
“We don’t think that we’re going to see a significant spike in COVID-19 cases,” Reeves said that April day.
In the same press conference, the governor said he was “confident” that “our health-care system is not going to be overwhelmed.”
Mississippi “had a prolonged plateau,” the governor said more than a month later, on May 27, as the state reported 313 new cases and 18 more deaths.
On that day, Reeves said that “unlike the state of New York and the state of New Jersey, Mississippi never had a huge peak.” He also said he blamed himself for forcing too many businesses to close by declaring them “nonessential.”
Today, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said it is too early to declare a plateau. He said he is “hoping that we’re seeing some plateauing,” but that the State should not be “complacent” because Mississippi has seen “variances” before.
Mississippi reported 1,074 new cases today and another 42 deaths. But hospitals, Dobbs said, reached their highest number of patients on ventilators ever today, with 314 people on the life-saving machines.
“Still, we’re seeing stress in the hospital system,” he said.
Mississippi has the highest positive test rate in the nation right now, with around a quarter of all people who get tested for COVID-19 learning they are infected. That’s up significantly from June, when the positive test rate hovered around 10%.
“Our test positivity rate is too high. We know that,” Dobbs said.
He also acknowledged that fewer people got tested for COVID-19 over the past week than they did last week—which could help explain why the number of new cases is lower, even as Mississippi leads the nation in positive tests.
Despite that, though, Dr. Dobbs said fewer people are getting tested than last week, which he ascribed to “demand.”
Dobbs: Keeping Schools Open ‘Going to Be Tough’
Even as Gov. Reeves is once again talking about a plateau, though, a number of public-health experts and educators, like those that the Mississippi Association of Educators represent, have warned that school reopenings could lead to a skyrocketing number of cases among not just schoolchildren, but their parents, grandparents and teachers.
When Israel reopened schools in mid-May, things seemed to go well for a few weeks. By June, dozens of schools locked down, and thousands of children and teachers had to quarantine at home. At least one teacher died.
When it reopened its schools on May 17, though, Israel was reporting about two new cases per million people during each day. Last week, as the first Mississippi K-12 schools opened for the fall in Corinth, the State was daily reporting more than 400 new cases per million people.
“Without a doubt, every day every school that opens is going to have some child with coronavirus walking through the door,” Dobbs said during today’s press conference.
Dobbs also said the Corinth School District, which gave parents the option of allowing their children to choose virtual or in-class learning, had “done a fantastic job” planning for the virus. Between students who are quarantined and those whose parents earlier opted for virtual classes, about 25% to 30% are now learning from home.
When Jackson Free Press reporter Nick Judin asked how Dobbs could say that, considering the fact that nearly 100 students and teachers are now in quarantine, the State’s top health official clarified that he was referring to their “response” and that the spread “reflects the community, not the school.”
“They’ve been really good about knowing where the kids are and who to quarantine. … It’ll be good for us to understand how good those prevention measures are,” Dobbs said.
Still, he said, reopening schools is going to prove difficult. “It’s going to be tough. That’s why it’s such a challenge to start schools right now, because if you’re continuing to quarantine a lot of your kids, it’s going to be difficult,” Dobbs said.
Yesterday, Dobbs seemed to contradict Gov. Reeves’ push for in-class reopenings in most schools, saying it was “a good idea to delay school” until at least September and that there is “nothing special about August.”
‘Begging for Trouble’
University of Mississippi School of Medicine Dean and Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs LouAnn Woodward once again called for a statewide mask mandate yesterday and said K-12 schools should delay their start until Labor Day. At UMMC, like other hospitals in the state, ICU beds are in short supply. By July 31, only 17% of the State’s 904 ICU beds remained available, and hospitals are struggling with resources.
“Our ICUs are full,” Woodward told NPR yesterday. “I mean, that is the bottom line. We have been full for several weeks. When other hospitals around the state call us for help, we’re unable to take their patients. We’ve had to assist a number of times in having patients transferred actually out of state. The patients with COVID are staying typically longer than many of our critical care patients, so they are tying up beds for a longer period of time.”
Last week, Douglas Chambers, a historian at the University of Southern Mississippi who has followed COVID-19 data in scholarly fashion since the first case appeared in the state, told the Mississippi Free Press that he feared a little-noticed “pediatric COVID crisis” will overwhelm schools and hospitals this fall—especially if K-12 schools push forward with resuming “traditional” face-to-face classroom settings. In recent weeks, school-age children have exhibited the largest increase in COVID-19 infection rates statewide, he said.
“At this moment, any random 100 children are likely to include at least 10-15, or as many as 30, or as few as 5, depending on where you are, who are largely asymptomatic carriers,” Chambers wrote in a report he sent to members of the media on July 28. “They will infect each other, and their families and their teachers. This is the truth.”
In the July 28 paper, the USM professor pointed to the Corinth School District, which reopened July 27. He warned that the county had seen some of the largest increases in COVID-19 cases.
“This is just begging for trouble, and not just for Alcorn County or Northeast Mississippi, but for the state as a whole,” Chambers wrote in his report last Wednesday.
Three days later, on July 31, the Corinth School District announced its first positive COVID-19 cases and that it had quarantined at least a dozen students—a total that has risen more than sevenfold since.
‘Everything is a Gray Area’
In today’s presser, Dr. Dobbs said that MSDH is not recommending that universities and colleges delay reopenings.
“Colleges have an entirely different scenario. … Most of their risk is going to be outside of the classroom, it’s going to be in the bars, it’s going to be at social events,” he said.
The governor said he does not currently support cancelling fall high-school sports, but he and the state health officer both agreed that it is unlikely the State will allow large crowds to attend games this season.
Even as Gov. Reeves is pushing for most schools to reopen in the next week or two, he admitted today that his position could shift.
“Everything is a gray area. … The decision we make today could change a week from now,” the governor said. “Is that going to make it hard for parents? Yes it is. And I know that.”