Weeks into the fall semester, Mississippi schools have already identified at least 897 COVID-19 cases among students and teachers. By last Friday, schools had also ordered at least 7,121 others to also quarantine at home for two weeks due to exposure and possible infections.
“On the good days, I’ll tell you the good news. On the bad days I’ll tell you the bad news,” Gov. Tate Reeves said during today’s press conference, where State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs revealed that the number of school cases has more than doubled since the previous report last Monday, Aug. 17.
Schools reported 292 new cases among students and 144 new cases among teachers last week, Dobbs said.
Today’s numbers are the totals as of Friday, Aug. 17; it does not include any new cases identified or quarantines ordered over the past four days.
Eight days ago, the State reported that schools had quarantined 2,035 students and 589 educators. In the week that followed, that number more than tripled. Altogether, officials had ordered about 8,000 Mississippi students and educators to quarantine at home for two weeks due either to confirmed COVID-19 infections or possible exposure by last Friday.
But the Mississippi State Department of Health could be undercounting. Dobbs said that only 720 of the state’s 1,063 schools are currently reporting total cases and quarantines to MSDH. In eight of the state’s 82 counties, no schools are reporting to MSDH at all yet, he said.
Dobbs said MSDH is working with the remaining schools that have not yet begun reporting to get them on board. He did note that a handful of schools have either not yet begun classes or are currently virtual only.
Despite the high numbers of cases and quarantines, Gov. Reeves, who pushed for schools to reopen earlier this month against Dr. Thomas Dobbs’ recommendations, said all is going according to plan.
“These numbers that we are seeing in our schools are not unexpected,” the governor said. “I am pleased at the number of isolations we’re seeing, the number of quarantines we’re seeing, and I’m pleased that there are large numbers of Mississippi kids sitting in a classroom today and learning in a safe environment.”
Dr. Dobbs noted that Biloxi High School in Harrison County decided to suspend in-class instruction yesterday after outbreaks forced the school to quarantine 324 students—about one-fifth of the entire student population. Biloxi first resumed in-class instruction on Aug. 5.
“Out of an abundance of caution and an effort to stop this current spread, we have made the decision to switch all BHS students to full distance learning until Tuesday, September 8. This includes suspending all extracurricular activities during this time,” Biloxi High School Principal Tereesa Martin said in a letter to parents yesterday. “The purpose of this pause is to allow students to be distanced from one another and stop the current spread within our school community.”
Dobbs noted that officials traced most of Biloxi’s new cases back to social events, including a party that many of the subsequently quarantined students attended.
“If we want to have football, if we want to have schools, we can’t have social events that violate the executive orders that are on the books,” the State’s top epidemiologist said, referring to Gov. Reeves’ social distancing and mask orders.
“So please, be careful, don’t have parties, and if you are a parent for goodness sake, please don’t sanction or conduct them yourselves because you’re not only putting your kids at risk, but you’re putting the entire educational system at risk.”
State Fears COVID-19 ‘Rebound’
Today, Mississippi also reported 67 new COVID-19 deaths—the largest one-day toll since the pandemic hit the state in March. During today’s press conference, Dr. Dobbs noted that 23 of those deaths happened weeks ago. MSDH often bundles earlier, previously unreported deaths into daily counts, though, and even without counting those 23, the 44 more recent deaths reported today would still represent the state’s fourth-highest single-day.
Deaths are a lagging indicator, though, and can represent cases that began weeks or even more than a month ago. In late July, Mississippi hit its peak in daily new cases totals. Since, daily new case totals have generally declined, but in the past two days, MSDH has reported week-over-week increases in new coronavirus cases.
“We’ve seen a leveling off of our previous decline. That could be a sign of a rebound of our previous number of cases, and we’re tracking that very, very closely,” Gov. Reeves said today. “Obviously, the last two days, Sunday and Monday, we had significantly higher numbers than we did Sunday and Monday of last week.”
“We need everyone to continue to try. We need everyone to continue to make an effort. … You can keep our kids in school, you can keep sports being played on the field, and we can save lives,” the governor promised.
During the presser, Dr. Dobbs offered new guidance for people experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19.
“For everyone out there, if you lose your sense of taste or smell, you have coronavirus. It’s a relatively unique thing,” he said. “ … Just as a head’s up, if you lose your taste or smell, you almost certainly have coronavirus.”
When a reporter asked the governor about how his executives orders, including social-distancing rules and mask mandates, are being enforced statewide, he said that enforcement “is challenging.”
“The best enforcement option is for the people of Mississippi to enforce it themselves,” he said.
The governor, who for months refused calls to issue a statewide mask mandate, credited the mask mandate that he issued in early August with the “downturn” in new cases since late July.
Reeves Joined Hundreds at Maskless Rally
Over the weekend, Reeves, a Republican, traveled to Salisbury, N.C., to campaign with Dan Forest, that state’s lieutenant governor and the GOP candidate for governor there this year. Photos of the rally, which the Salisbury Post reported more than 200 people attended, show neither Reeves, Forest nor most of those attending the Tar Heel State rally wearing masks.
While speaking, Reeves condemned incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 policies.
“You’ve seen the type of policies that your incumbent governor has enacted,” Reeves said to the crowd. “You’ve seen what it’s done to your economy. You’ve seen what it’s done to your unemployment rate. You’ve seen what it’s done to your kids. You’ve seen what it’s done to your grandkids. I don’t know if there’s an election in America where the contrast between the shutdown favored by the incumbent and the freedom favored by Dan Forest could be any more stark.”
Despite Reeves’ remarks, North Carolina is faring significantly better than Mississippi economically. Since February, North Carolina’s unemployment rate has more than doubled—rising from 3.6% in February to 8.5%. But that is significantly lower than the national average of 10.1% right now.
Before the pandemic arrived in the South, in February Mississippi’s 5.4% unemployment rate was already well above North Carolina’s rate. By July, Mississippi’s jobless rate had doubled, rising to 10.8% and surpassing the national average.
Cooper has been more strict with coronavirus limits in the Tar Heel State. There, bars, gyms and indoor entertainment venues will remain closed until Sept. 11; Reeves began reopening those businesses in Mississippi in May and June, when the state was seeing a prolonged lull in new cases.
Gov. Cooper halted most public-school reopenings there until September, and required most to begin with remote learning only, unlike Mississippi where the vast majority of schools began with in-person instruction earlier this month.
“With the opening of schools, people will move around more, and so will the virus. Other states that lifted restrictions quickly have had to go backward as their hospital capacity ran dangerously low and their cases jumped higher. We won’t make that mistake in North Carolina,” NPR reported Cooper saying on Aug. 5.
Mississippi is one of those states. By late July, the Magnolia State had the highest COVID-19 positive test rate in the nation as cases surged far above their spring peak. At one point, only about 15% of the state’s intensive care units remained, and hospitals across the state ran out of beds for new patients.
North Carolina has seen significantly more success controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. Mississippi has reported more than 2,300 deaths since the pandemic began, compared to about 2,600 in the Tar Heel State, where nearly four times as many people live.
Still, North Carolina has fumbled. Earlier this month, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill quickly suspended in-person classes less than a week into the semester when a series of COVID-19 outbreaks spread across campus. Several Mississippi universities have reported outbreaks, too, but remain open for now.
After Gov. Reeves’ spoke at GOP hopeful Dan Forest’s rally in Salisbury, N.C., over the weekend, the candidate himself spoke.
“I will never tell a business owner in North Carolina that their business is non-essential,” Forest told the crowd. “I will never tell a business owner that they have to close their business, and they can’t provide food for their family, and they can’t put a roof over their head.”
The man who was there to support him, Gov. Reeves, had declared dozens of businesses “non-essential” in April and ordered them to cease operations for several weeks. The move drove down new COVID-19 infections, and the state saw relatively low rates in May and early June, but Gov. Reeves said on May 15 that he regretted the move.
During his campaign for governor in North Carolina, Forest has drawn criticism for his stances on a variety of COVID-19 measures, including masks.
At an Independence Day campaign rally, Forest told a crowd of about 500 people that Democrats were taking “advantage” of the pandemic and of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., in order to “bring destruction to America” with “a cultural revolution.” Gov. Cooper’s mask mandates are part of that, he said, claiming that “multiple comprehensive studies” had shown that “masks do not work with viruses.”
“That’s why we’ve never used a mask for a coronavirus before, ever,” Forest claimed, even though his campaign had already begun selling Forest-branded masks to supporters.
Health experts quickly pointed out that such studies do not exist and that most epidemiologists agree that masks are saving lives.
Forest has also refused to implement other social distancing rules at his rallies, telling North Carolina local news channel WXII earlier this month that “we shake as many hands as we can and we meet as many people as possible.”
“That’s just kind of the good old fashioned way of politicking,” the candidate said.
‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do’
After the photos of a maskless Reeves joining hundreds at Forest’s rally appeared online, he drew criticisms from across the political spectrum.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” wrote former Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster, who challenged Reeves for the GOP nomination for governor in 2019. “Tate Reeves, you lying coward career politician, remove the mask mandates in Mississippi, especially from our children at school right now.”
Foster, like some other far-right figures, opposes mask mandates, even though the vast majority of public-health experts say they can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19.
At today’s press conference, Reeves defended his decision to not wear a mask at the rally.
“I’m not wearing a mask now. I believe when we’re looking at speaking I rarely wear a mask. I didn’t wear a mask to the funeral of the deputy sheriff from Simpson County,” the governor said.
Health experts, including Dr. Dobbs, have cited funerals as “super spreader events” and urged people to wear masks if they attend them.
“The reality is that I was definitely at an event with a good friend of mine, Dan Forest, the Republican nominee for governor of North Carolina. It was a campaign event. We believe political speech is protected,” Reeves said today. “It was not at all unlike the downtown protest in Jackson.”
The governor was referring to the Black Lives Matter protest in Jackson in early June, which passed by the governor’s mansion and marked the largest demonstrations since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Most if not all who joined those protests, though, wore masks, even though health experts say COVID-19 spreads far less efficiently outdoors than indoors.
In the weeks after that march and other Black Lives Matter protests around the state, Dr. Thomas Dobbs said MSDH had not traced any outbreaks back to the marches. After one reporter pointed out the differences between the maskless North Carolina rally and the Mississippi marches, though, calling it an “unfair comparison,” the governor pushed back.
“Oh, I think it’s a very fair comparison. And I think that protests are protected, and I have defended the rights of those to protest repeatedly, both when those on the far right were protesting certain (COVID-19 lockdown) orders that I had enacted as well as when those protests occurred in downtown Jackson at the governor’s mansion,” Reeves said. “There were literally thousands and thousands of people outside the governor’s mansion protesting, and I defend their right to do so.”
Reeves: Hurricanes ‘More Regular’ Now
During the press conference today, the governor also said that his administration is keeping a close watch on two storms in the Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi appears to have avoided what at one point weather experts feared could have been a near simultaneous hit from two hurricanes or tropical storms, as both have since changed course.
“It just seems like hurricanes have become more and more regular, and we’re learning to deal with them,” Reeves said, noting that Saturday will mark the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly arrival on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Climate experts have said for years that climate change, driven in large part by fossil-fuel emissions, is causing rises not only in hurricanes and other storm systems in the Gulf of Mexico, but in the frequent Mississippi River flooding in the state’s delta region.
But Gov. Reeves, like many Republican and Democratic politicians in the state, has avoided talk of climate-change policies, and mocked national politicians who do seek to address the issue.
The Clarion-Ledger reported last year that, when the paper asked him what he would do to “prepare the state for climate change as governor,” Reeves mockingly invoked New York-based Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has proposed a “Green New Deal” to fight climate change in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I’m sure what we would just do is we would get AOC down here and tell us all the things we need to do,” he said, adding that he was “joking” and claiming that the Green New Deal would devastate Mississippi’s economy.
Climate experts have warned that increasingly worse weather is not the only natural disaster humanity faces from manmade climate change, though. In an April 27 letter, scientists with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services organization warned that climate change will also increase the frequency of pandemics like the one Gov. Reeves is dealing with in Mississippi today.
“Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today,” the group’s letter reads.
In his interview with The Clarion-Ledger last fall, though, Reeves suggested he had no interest in tackling the issue.
“I don’t believe the Mississippi state government is going to have a whole lot to do with fixing any alleged challenges that humans may be causing for our environment,” the Jackson paper reported Reeves saying.
Correction: The reporter made a math error in the earlier version of this story, which incorrectly stated the Mississippi schools have quarantined 7,429 students. The actual total is 8,018. The earlier figure did not include 589 teachers or school staff members who were quarantined last week. We apologize for the error.