White Mississippians Now ‘Driving’ COVID-19, Surpassing Black Case and Death Totals

A white man wears a mask with the words: "This was preventable"
One reason COVID-19 is now disproportionately affecting white Mississippians is because they are less likely to practice mask wearing and social distancing, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said today. Seen here, A man in downtown Petal, Miss., wears a face mask with the words “This Was Preventable" in May. Photo by Ashton Pittman

White Mississippians now account for more confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths than Black Mississippians for the first time since the pandemic arrived in the state in March. Early on, the public-health crisis disproportionately affected Black Mississippians, but since early September, cases have been growing about twice as fast among white Mississippians.

“White people are driving the COVID pandemic in Mississippi. They have been since June, but especially in the past six weeks. There appears to be ‘a white folks problem’ in Mississippi,” Douglas Chambers, a University of Southern Mississippi history professor, told the Mississippi Free Press yesterday.

Chambers has studied past pandemics and examined COVID-19 data each day since the first day it arrived in the state. Total confirmed COVID-19 deaths among white Mississippians since March surpassed those for Black Mississippians on Sept. 21. Then, on Oct. 14, white Mississippians finally surpassed Black Mississippians in the total number of confirmed cases, too.

‘Time for White People to Step Up’

“In the first wave, Black and Brown people, including Choctaw people, bore the brunt of this pandemic. But ever since mid-summer, Black and Brown and Choctaw people stepped up,” Chambers said. “And I would say that Mississippi owes Black and Brown and Choctaw people a debt of gratitude, because if they had not done so, it’s very likely that our total caseload would be double. Right now we would be talking about 200,000 confirmed cases instead of 100,000. We would probably be talking about 6,000 deaths instead of 3,000.”

“So now it’s time for white people in Mississippi to step up,” the scholar said.

The shift represents a dramatic reversal since early April, when Black Mississippians accounted for 52% of cases and 71% of deaths; white Mississippians made up 35% of cases and 29% of deaths at that time.

During a Zoom press conference today, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Dobbs told the Mississippi Free Press that, early on, outbreaks in nursing homes somewhat “moderated” the disparities in deaths among Black Mississippians because long-term care facilities have a larger proportion of white residents. But that alone did not turn the tide overall.

Historian Douglas Chambers said COVID-19 cases and deaths have grown most among white Mississippians in recent weeks. Photo courtesy Douglas Chambers.

“As far as case trends, we have had pretty good uptake by a lot of folks in the Black community with masking and social distancing,” Dobbs said. “We’ve worked to make sure the Black community understands where the risks are. Big parts of the white community, especially in areas that are not heavily affected, have not been as compliant and engaged in masking and social distancing, so I think that makes a big difference.”

Current daily data reflect the same trends Chambers has tracked since mid-summer.

Yesterday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 1,322 new cases, representing a 1.2% increase statewide. Among just white Mississippians, though, cumulative cases increased 1.6% with yesterday’s data. Among Black Mississippians, the increase was just 0.9%.

“So we have the fact that Black and Brown and Choctaw people were hit hardest first, and then they really stepped up. All that means is they are wearing masks, they’re social distancing, they’re doing what they need to do. And white people are not.”

Chambers called on Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to recognize the new disparities and “address this reality.”  Reeves is a white Republican who began relaxing social-distancing measures in May amid pressure from some conservative voters. 

After issuing a statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4 that helped bring daily case numbers down dramatically from a late July peak, Reeves allowed the mandate to expire on Sept. 30, saying “we need to trust the people of this country to look after themselves and make wise decisions” instead of the government. A week later, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs lamented that progress was “unraveling” as mask use had begun “dropping off rapidly.”

‘We Are on the Horizon of the Second Wave’

At the very least, Chambers told the Mississippi Free Press yesterday, the governor should now begin ordering face-covering mandates in the hardest hit areas.

“Gov. Reeves needs to impose regional mask mandates, especially for the hill and prairie country of the northeastern counties, in the Pine Belt and on the coast,” Chambers said. “His electoral base is most at risk. Does he have the courage?”

Making efforts to reduce transmission now is especially important, the historian said, because, two weeks after the mask mandate ended, cases are once again surging.

“We are on the horizon of the second wave. I would say we are already clearly now in the second wave, and it is the responsibility of white people to get their act together,” he said.

During the Zoom conference today, Dr. Dobbs said he supports doing “whatever it takes to get more people wearing masks indoors,” whether that means another statewide mask mandate or a series of local ones. He said he is speaking with the governor, who he expects will announce additional plans for dealing with the pandemic next week.

“Since the mask mandate was rescinded, people have not maintained masking like I had hoped. A lot of businesses and other organizations have not taken the successes we gained over the summer and translated them into ongoing action,” Dobbs said.

The state health officer said the speed with which Mississippians gave up masking after the mandate expired took him by surprise.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, right, said he was “disappointed” that so many Mississippians abandoned mask wearing after Gov. Tate Reeves, left, allowed the mask mandate to expire on Sept. 30. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves.

“We had a rough summer and I really hoped people had learned the impact of masking and social distancing,” Dobbs said. “It really showed it worked quite nicely. And why we would abandon something that is simple, easy and effective just because there is not an executive order has perplexed me and I’m frankly disappointed.”

Chambers told the Mississippi Free Press he is particularly concerned about the Nov. 3 election. Under state law, most Mississippians must vote in person on Election Day, with only a limited number of exceptions allowed for absentee voting. Unlike other states that moved to make voting safer with expanded early, absentee and mail voting options, Mississippi’s Legislature declined to take up bills that would have done so here.

Presently, there are no plans to require voters to wear masks at polling stations, and Secretary of State Michael Watson said on Oct. 2 that he believes such a move would be “unconstitutional.” 

“The secretary of state has control over state elections, and Mr. Watson has said there will be no mask mandate at the polls, but that is a little over two weeks away,” Chambers told the Mississippi Free Press. “By then, we’ll be smack in the middle of the second wave. And since white people are driving the pandemic, they’re going to suffer disproportionately. 

“So let’s wise up and recognize that the election on Nov. 3 is going to see very high turnout. We’ve got to protect people. It’s common sense.”

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