Even as public schools across Mississippi reported hundreds of new COVID-19 cases among students and teachers, dozens more schools opened up today. In Hinds County, Gov. Tate Reeves arrived for his press conference today and immediately launched into a discussion of the latest news.
“Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here today,” the governor began, moments after removing his deep-red mask with the words “Make America Great Again” embroidered across it in white. “I know it was just announced the University of Florida is scheduled to play at Ole Miss on Sept. 26 and that Mississippi State is scheduled to play at LSU on the same day. I know a lot of people in our state are very interested in college football happening, and I’m very interested in college football happening.”
“So what I would say to you is, keep doing what you’re doing,” Reeves continued. “Wear a mask. Stay socially distanced. Do not get in large groups for social reasons.”
For several minutes, the governor praised the state, pointing out that Mississippi saw a decline in cases last week, and that Mississippians efforts were helping “ensure that we can move back towards a more normal fall.”
After the governor was done with his initial remarks, around 10 minutes into the press conference, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs delivered a more grim assessment. The schools that reopened in the first two weeks of August, along with Corinth School District, which reopened in late July, have already reported hundreds of cases and quarantined thousands of students and teachers, the State’s top health official said.
Mississippi public schools have confirmed 199 cases among students and 245 among teachers, Dobbs said, and school districts have ordered 2,035 students and 589 teachers to quarantine at home for two weeks after possible exposure to COVID-19. Schools in 71 of Mississippi’s 82 counties have reported cases, the state health officer said.
“It doesn’t mean they caught it there,” though, Dobbs added, saying some students and teachers likely had COVID-19 when classes began.
Telehealth Services for Schools, Testing for Teachers
During the press conference, Reeves also announced that he was working with the Mississippi Division of Medicaid to provide telehealth services in public schools.
“This will allow schools, even those without school nurses or school-based clinics, to access telehealth services,” the governor said.
The State is also making it easier for teachers to get tested, Reeves said, whether or not they have novel coronavirus symptoms.
“We also know that testing can allow us to prevent the spread of the virus by immediately identifying and isolating known cases. As teachers return to the classroom, we want to make it simple for them to get access to testing,” the governor said.
The governor announced that teachers will be able to get tested at the Mississippi State Department of Health’s testing site at the University of Mississippi Medical Center; at county health departments where sixteen testing teams will rotate among every two weeks across the state; or at a number of community health centers across the state.
“As teachers return to the classroom, we want to make it simple for them to get access to testing,” the governor said.
Dr. Dobbs Called Reopenings ‘Crazy’
Early in the press conference, Reeves noted that, during the last week of July, Mississippi’s seven-day average in new cases was around 1,400 per day. Last week, it fell below 700, he said.
“Let’s not rest on our laurels like we did in June,” warned the governor who ended lockdowns in May and broadly reopened the state on June 1, while also declining to issue a statewide mask mandate until cases surged to record highs in late July.
“We know that Mississippi is coming together to beat back the coronavirus that ravaged our state this summer. Thank you,” Reeves said. “We know that your efforts are working. Whether you’re a Rebel or a Bulldog or a Golden Eagle or a Jackson State Tiger or any of our universities or whether you just want to go out and root for a high school team, understand that you can make a difference. The way you make a difference to ensure that we can move back towards a more normal fall is to make sure that we take the numbers we saw this week and the numbers we saw last week and push the gas pedal all the way down.”
The governor urged Mississippians to “continue to drive cases down … to help us ensure that our kids stay in school.”
But public-health experts and others who have followed COVID-19 data warned throughout July and early August that reopening schools could cause a renewed pandemic surge in the State.
In July, Dr. Douglas Chambers, a University of Southern Mississippi historian who has studied past pandemics and has followed COVID-19 data in dozens of states and countries since March, warned that the State of Mississippi was reporting a surge driven by increases among school age children.
“They’ll infect each other and their families and their teachers. This is the truth,” Chambers told the Mississippi Free Press.
During a live question-and-answer session earlier this month, Dr. Dobbs said returning to “traditional” classroom environments was “wholly unacceptable” and “crazy,” the Sun Herald reported, noting that he “said he expects COVID-19 cases in Mississippi to level off until after school starts” and colleges reopen. Soon after, though, he warned, cases would “take off again.”
“It’s impossible to imagine that we are not going to pay the price for cramming kids into schools right now,” Dobbs said on Aug. 3. “There’s just no plausible scenario where it’s just not going to be bad.”
And early this month, University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Medicine Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Dr. LouAnn Woodward called on the governor to delay school until after Labor Day.
Despite those warnings, Gov. Reeves pressed forward and continued pushing for schools to resume traditional instruction this fall. He did adopt some of Dobbs’ recommendations, including requiring masks in schools and issuing a statewide mask mandate that is set to expire at the end of the month.
“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 when he announced the mask order on Aug. 4.
The mask mandate was originally set to expire after two weeks, but the governor extended it last week.
‘Double Down, Mask Up’
During the press conference today, Dobbs said he is also worried that college students are not following social-distancing rules as they get ready to return. “We’ve seen massive parties that violate the rules. And we will see outbreaks,” he said.
Dr. Dobbs reiterated some familiar advice.
“Double down, mask up, maintain your distance, avoid groups, and if you have kids in college tell them to stay home and stay in small groups because we’re going to have real trouble out of that. I have no doubt,” the State’s top health official said.
As Mississippi heads into the fall, Dr. Dobbs said he has another concern.
“Flu season is coming up, and we don’t want to have a bad combination flu season and COVID season,” he said. “So please, get your flu shot. Pharmacies are starting to stock the flu vaccine now, so go ahead, go out, get the flu vaccine—especially people who don’t think they need the flu vaccine. Young people die from the flu every year. We definitely don’t want the flu and COVID stretching our health system together, which is already being stretched.”
While various individual schools have reported cases publicly, the Mississippi State Department of Health does not yet have a comprehensive list of school outbreaks. Dr. Dobbs said MSDH will soon begin publishing weekly updates on school outbreaks listed by county on the department’s website.