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Mississippi COVID-19 Deaths ‘Almost Certainly Undercounted,’ Top Health Official Says

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here giving a 2019 campaign speech about workforce training at Jones College in Ellisville, touted Reskill Mississippi, a job-skills training program the state is funding using CARES Act money. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Mississippi is “almost certainly undercounting” the number of residents who have died from the novel coronavirus since March, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said in a press conference today. The Mississippi State Department of Health has been “conservative” in its counting procedures, he said, adding that “excess deaths” for the year exceed the official COVID-19 death toll.

“Excess deaths” refers to how many people have died from all causes this year compared to the average for previous years. Early this year, the State was recording fewer weekly deaths than the average from prior years. But since the novel coronavirus pandemic arrived in March, Mississippi has recorded excess deaths each week.

Dobbs said Mississippi has recorded about 3,300 excess deaths this year—a number that exceeds the official count by about 650. But the CDC estimates that the State’s excess deaths this year could be as high as 3,687.

Until COVID-19 hit the state in March, Mississippi reported fewer deaths weekly than the average for in prior years. Since, weekly deaths have remained well above the average from past years. Image courtesy CDC.

Mississippi reported an additional 33 deaths today, bringing the toll since March to 2,656. Still, the state health officer said the State has made “considerable progress over the past several weeks” in slowing COVID-19’s spread. Today, the health department reported an additional 517 cases—a marked decrease from the more than 1,000 new cases the State was reporting daily in mid-summer.

“We would very much like everyone to continue with social distancing, small groups and masks,” Dobbs said.

MSDH Reports New High in K-12 Cases

The state health officer also said that the situation in Mississippi’s public schools “has really gone much better than we might have anticipated,” citing educators’ effectiveness in social distancing students, enforcing mask rules, and identifying and quarantining students with possible cases or exposures.

Despite that modestly rosy assessment, though, MSDH reported today more positive tests among K-12 students than in any week since schools began reopening in late July and early August, with 326 students testing positive for COVID-19 for the week of Aug. 31 to Sept. 4—up from 280 the week before.

Slightly fewer teachers and staff members tested positive for the virus last week, though, with 124 new cases—a downtick from last week’s 138 new cases.

Schools also quarantined more students last week than in any week since reopening, with MSDH reporting 4,057 student quarantines in addition to 458 school faculty and staff members.

Since the pandemic’s beginning, schools have reported 1,092 COVID-19 cases among students and 604 among staff and faculty.

By last Friday, schools had quarantined 16,000 students and 2,767 teachers or staff members.

“I know it’s disruptive to students to have to be out of school for a while, but … it keeps the schools open,” Dobbs said today.

College Towns Struggling with Outbreaks

Though overall case numbers are down, Dobbs admitted that college towns, like Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi, are struggling with outbreaks.

“We’re not exceptionally surprised. We knew that was going to be a big challenge,” Dobbs said, citing social gatherings in bars and house parties as the core driver of college town outbreaks.

At the press conference, Gov. Tate Reeves credited Mississippians with bringing daily COVID-19 case numbers down, saying most have been following his statewide mask mandate. He instituted the order in early August, after resisting calls for a statewide mask mandate for months.

“Even the USM Golden Eagle is masked up,” Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs wrote in a Sept. 3 tweet after meeting with University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett. “Well done President Bennett on your team’s well constructed COVID responses strategies.” Photo courtesy Dr. Thomas Dobbs.

Today, Reeves insisted that waiting until August was the right decision, saying that starting with only mandating masks in the hardest hit counties in July helped earn “buy in” on mask-wearing.

But after the governor began issuing piecemeal mask mandates in some counties in early July, case numbers statewide soared in the weeks after, hitting a daily peak above 1,600 by the end of the month. The daily death count also hit new highs in August. The state did see a dramatic decrease in daily new cases in the weeks after the governor issued his statewide mask mandate in early August, though.

‘Unfortunate Politicization’ of COVID-19

As he did last week when he invoked the debunked Wuhan lab myth to explain the novel coronavirus’ origins, Gov. Tate Reeves waded into political territory again today with false claims—this time about Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy’s new television ad.

Espy, who is running against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, criticized her in the new ad, saying she “pushed to reopen (the economy) before doctors said we were ready” and that cases surged, overwhelming hospitals across the state.

Frank Corder, the managing editor for pro-GOP site Y’all Politics, asked Gov. Reeves if he took any “umbrage” at Espy’s claim.

“The politicization of this particular virus is unfortunate,” Reeves said. “Candidate Espy is a liberal Democrat that is always going to criticize anyone who is trying to grow our state’s economy. If Mike Espy is elected to the U.S. Senate, he is going to do exactly what Joe Biden and his liberal advisers tell him to do. Joe Biden has said that he would shut down the economy, and I believe that if Biden is elected president and Mike Espy is elected to the Senate, they’re going to try to shut down the U.S. economy for months on end.”

The Democratic nominee for president has not signaled plans to shut down the U.S. economy again. In an Aug. 23 interview, ABC News reporter David Muir posed a hypothetical: Would Biden shut down the economy if scientists said it was necessary? In that scenario, Biden said, “I would shut it down.”

The candidate further clarified his stance on Sept. 2.

“There is going to be no need in my view, to be able to shut down the whole economy. … I got asked by David Muir a question if I was asked to shut everything down, I took that as a generic question: am I going to follow the science,” he told a crowd in Wilmington, Del.

The Democrat challenging Hyde-Smith for her Senate seat, meanwhile, explicitly said in an interview with the Jackson Free Press last month that he would not support shutting the economy down again.

“I’m not in favor of shutting the state down again. I’m not in favor of sequestering people and having them go back into their homes. I think now that horse is out of the barn. That horse is gone. And I wouldn’t want to bring it back to the corral,” Espy said in mid-August.

Espy has centered much of his campaign around health care, though. One of his top priorities is to bring Medicaid expansion to Mississippi, a core aspect of the 2010 Affordable Care Act that could bring coverage to as many as 300,000 Mississippians. Sen. Hyde-Smith opposes the move, and has supported a legal attempt to invalidate the entire ACA.

Gov. Reeves vigorously opposed Medicaid expansion during his time as lieutenant governor and during his 2019 campaign. He refused to reconsider earlier this year, as the pandemic swept the state. Today, though, he sought to make good on one of his 2019 campaign priorities—workforce training.

Reeves Touts ‘Reskill Mississippi’ Program

Reeves highlighted Reskill Mississippi, a program the state is implementing using federal COVID-19 aid dollars from the CARES Act. He said the program is helping thousands of Mississippians who are struggling to find work to either get on-the-job training or get skill training for “skills in high demand” at the state’s 15 community colleges.

Reskill Mississippi reimburses employers for any wages paid during on-the-job training. Gov. Reeves said that his Restart Mississippi commission recommended the program. A Mississippi Free Press investigation in May found that Reeves filled spots on the Restart Mississippi commission with individuals tied to more than $760,000 in donations to his campaigns over the years.

“If you are an individual who is hurting economically because of COVID-19, this program may be for you,” Reeves said today. “If you are an employer looking to hire individuals and train them yourself, this program may be for you.”

Reeves encouraged people to go to to sign up for the program.

“Investing in Mississippi’s people is going to make a difference,” the governor said.

In the weeks since the program began, Reeves said, 71 employers are participating and more than 4,300 Mississippians have signed up for the program. Of those, 1,700 are enrolled in short-term training programs at community colleges, and 340 individuals “are getting training on the job by Mississippi employers,” the governor said.

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