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COVID-19 Progress ‘Unraveling’ in Mississippi as Cases Spike After Mask Order Lifted

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here at a Sept. 30 White House meeting last week with Vice President Mike Pence (right) and Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Deborah Birx, ended the statewide mask mandate on Sept. 30. He said he would trust Mississippians to continue to wear masks "without the heavy hand of government." Photo courtesy Vice President Mike Pence.

Less than a week after Gov. Tate Reeves ended his statewide mask mandate, COVID-19 cases are spiking across Mississippi, and hospitalizations are once again on the rise. K-12 schools also reported identifying a record number of new cases and quarantining more students, teachers and staff than in any single week.

Yesterday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 975 new novel coronavirus cases—the most cases for any single day since Aug. 19, when the state reported 1,348 COVID-19 infections. 

After Mississippi hit an all-time high of 1,775 cases on July 30, Gov. Reeves ordered all Mississippians to wear masks in public, bringing case numbers down and freeing up space in overwhelmed hospitals statewide. The governor let the mask order expire on Sept. 30, though. 

In a tweet today, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs warned that Mississippi risks giving up all its hard-won gains in the fight against COVID-19.

“Big day,” he wrote last night, before the state reported an additional 521 cases and 24 more deaths today. “Some of that is attributable to delayed reporting, but… increasing hospitalizations. … Our equilibrium is unraveling. We know what it takes if we will just do it.”

On Sunday, Dobbs said it was “discouraging to see mask use dropping off so rapidly after (the) mandate (was) lifted.”

After Steady Decline, Hospitalizations Rebound

When Gov. Tate Reeves announced last week that he would allow the mask mandate to expire, he said he would “trust the majority of the people of Mississippi to do the right thing” and continue wearing masks without “the heavy hand of government” compelling them.

The number of Mississippians currently hospitalized for COVID-19 had fallen to a post-July surge low of 393 on Oct. 3, but has continually risen each day since. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported today that 457 Mississippians are now hospitalized with confirmed novel coronavirus infections.

Hospitalizations have risen each day since Sunday. Image courtesy MSDH

Last night, MSDH reported that, for the second week in a row, Mississippi’s schools recorded a record number of new COVID-19 infections. From Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, schools statewide confirmed 521 new cases among teachers, students, and staff, up from 459 the week before. 

Schools ordered 7,883 to quarantine at home for two weeks either for confirmed infections or known exposure to COVID-19 positive peers or colleagues—surpassing the record 5,508 quarantines that K-12 schools issued the week prior.

The upward trend continued despite the fact that schools are one of the few places where Gov. Reeves left a mask mandate in effect. 

No Masks at State Fair With Up to 21,000 Attendees

Yesterday, Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson raised alarm bells when he said wearing a mask at this year’s Mississippi State Fair “is a matter of personal preference.” That contradicted assurances Dobbs and Reeves gave last week that fairgoers would be required to wear masks.

The 161st Mississippi State Fair kicked off at the fairgrounds in Jackson today. While there are some safety provisions, such as making hand sanitizer available and limiting entrance to 200 people per square acre, as many as 21,000 people could attend the fair at one time.

In a statement yesterday, Gipson warned older people and those with underlying conditions that make them acutely vulnerable to COVID-19 to consider avoiding the fair.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson - Mississippi Free Press
Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson, seen here at the Neshoba County Fair in 2019, said mask wearing will be a “personal choice” for attendees of the Mississippi State Fair. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

“Guests should evaluate their own risk in determining whether to attend. By coming to the fair, you acknowledge and agree that you assume these inherent risks associated with attendance,” Gipson said.

Public-health experts have warned that large events and gatherings, as well as ones like weddings, birthday parties and funerals, have been identified as the source of a number of large-scale, deadly outbreaks since the pandemic began. Indoor gatherings, where the air is more stagnant and coronavirus particles may linger, are especially dangerous.

Risk Rises During Holidays, Cold Weather

Dr. Dobbs struck a note of caution during the Sept. 30 press conference when Gov. Reeves announced the end of the mask mandate..

“We are still vulnerable to a rebound, and we are still vulnerable to a surge,” he said at the time, though he did not directly criticize the governor’s decision to let the mask order expire, saying the course of the pandemic would be “dependent on choices we make collectively and individually.”

“People will be indoors more and have more indoor get-togethers around the holidays,” Dobbs said on Sept. 30. “We are watching it daily, closely. If we really take it seriously, what we did over the past couple of months, it worked, and so I don’t know why we would just quit doing it and have to go back and do some of the things we did previously.”

Gov. Reeves told reporters at that press conference last Friday that he would be prepared to take action to curb a COVID-19 surge if one appeared, suggesting he might reinstate mask mandates in hardest-hit counties. He took a similar piecemeal approach as cases surged to all-time highs in July before finally issuing the statewide mask order on Aug. 4.

Even as he allowed the statewide order to expire on Sept. 30, Reeves cited it as a success in bringing down the daily case numbers. The next evening, news broke that President Donald Trump had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Reeves Maskless at Sept. 28 White House Meetings

Reeves decided to end the mandate two days after a Sept. 28 meeting in Washington, D.C., with top White House officials. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a photo showing Reeves sitting at a table inside the White House with Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. None of the three leaders in Pence’s photos are wearing masks. 

Pence, like Trump and even Reeves in some instances, has often declined to wear masks in public and refused to engage in other social-distancing measures. Pence is debating U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, tonight, and his team has argued against measures designed to prevent COVID-19 transmission—such as the plexiglass barriers that the debate committee will place between the candidates tonight.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here with First Lady Elee Williams Reeves wearing masks at the Republican National Convention on the White House lawn in August, said he tested negative for COVID-19 after attending COVID-19-related meetings at the White House last week. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

Since President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis on Oct. 1, both the vice president and the Mississippi governor have taken COVID-19 tests and said they tested negative for the virus.

Even on the day Reeves ended the mandate last week, daily cases numbers remained, on average, above their spring highs when the first wave swept through the Magnolia State in March, April and May.

Since the pandemic arrived in Mississippi, the state has reported more than 100,000 confirmed infections and over 3,000 deaths. In the past several days, MSDH has reported an uptick in the number of new deaths reported each day, with 24 new deaths announced today.

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