Some Mississippi religious leaders have struggled to convince their congregants to keep wearing masks in church since Gov. Tate Reeves allowed the order to expire on Sept. 30, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs revealed during a press conference with the governor in Hinds County today.
“I’ve had a couple churches call me, and I’ve been disappointed because I don’t think I understood this, but what they said is, ‘Now that there’s no mask mandate, I can’t tell my parishioners to wear a mask in church,’” Dobbs said.
In at least nine counties, though, church leaders could find their job a little easier after Gov. Reeves revealed plans to re-enact mask mandates in those hardest hit, including DeSoto, Jackson, Lee, Forrest, Lamar, Itawamba, Neshoba, Claiborne and Chickasaw counties.
Mississippi recorded a dramatic uptick in new COVID-19 cases last week, including some of the highest daily numbers since the pandemic’s summer peak here, when many hospitals were overwhelmed. Cases and hospitalizations dropped dramatically in the weeks after Reeves first issued a statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4. Since its end, though, hospitalizations have also begun rising once more.
“Here in Mississippi, we’ve seen this movie before. We know what can happen if we allow this to get out of control. So we want to be proactive to prevent that from happening,” Reeves said at today’s press conference. “Today, I will be signing an executive order that is consistent with the strategy that allowed us to successfully turn this around the last time we saw significant transmission.”
The order applies to counties that have reported at least 200 cases over the past two weeks or 500 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period. The order goes into effect Wednesday at 8 a.m. and lasts until Nov. 11 at 5 p.m.
‘We Saw the Strategy Work’
Reeves said several other counties are nearing the “danger zone” and could soon be added to the list unless they “step up” to control the virus, including Harrison, Hinds and Rankin counties. But the governor suggested he does not want to enact another statewide mask order.
“We have to avoid using the heavy hand of government unless it is truly necessary. We should always be limited as possible while never ignoring the risk of inaction. I’ll tell you, I don’t do any of this lightly, and no governor should,” he said. “But we saw the strategy work during the summer wave. As a reminder, our cases started to decline long before the statewide mask mandate went into effect.”
The seven-day average number of new cases had begun to decline some by the time Reeves first issued a statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4, from a seven-day average peak of almost 1,500 on July 21 to around 1,000. By that time, however, the governor had already ordered targeted mandates in nearly half the state’s 82 counties.
The governor issued his first county-level mask mandates on July 9, affecting only 13 counties that surpassed the “danger zone” threshold. By July 30, his county orders covered 37 counties as cases continued to explode statewide. He issued the statewide order less than a week later, declaring, “I want to see college football.”
After Gov. Reeves issued the statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases fell to a post-peak low of 437 on Sept. 13, and hovered at or just under 500 for the next two weeks. On the day the mandate expired, the average was exactly 500 daily cases; it has since risen to 766 cases per day.
‘Our Mission is the Same’
On Oct. 3, three days after the mandate’s end, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported that there were 393 Mississippi patients hospitalized with COVID-19—the lowest since the summer surge. Today, 541 Mississippians are hospitalized with COVID-19.
Reeves said today that, unless Mississippians take serious steps to mitigate the virus’ spread, hospitals could become overwhelmed over the fall and winter holidays.
“If Thanksgiving 2020 is exactly like Thanksgiving 2018 and 2019, transmission is going to go up. I think that’s just a fact,” he said today.
The governor’s order today also requires hospitals in the nine counties with new mask orders to reserve 10% of hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients. If they cannot do that, they must suspend elective procedures.
“As we wait for a vaccine, our mission is the same as it ever was: to prevent our health care system from becoming overwhelmed. We’re not trying to prevent any one individual from contracting the virus. At this point, months and months into this pandemic, you know the risk of any given action or any given activity,” Reeves said at today’s press conference.
Reeves: No on Herd Immunity
Gov. Reeves’ decision to end the mask mandate came two days after meetings with White House officials, including Dr. Deborah Birx, a leading member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Vice President Mike Pence.
Today, the Washington Post reported that administration sources claim President Donald Trump’s administration has “given up” on fighting the virus until a vaccine arrives. The Post reported that Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and Fox News commentator, has “consolidated power over the government’s pandemic response” and Trump’s views on the virus.
“Atlas shot down attempts to expand testing. He openly feuded with other doctors on the coronavirus task force and succeeded in largely sidelining them. He advanced fringe theories, such as that social distancing and mask-wearing were meaningless and would not have changed the course of the virus in several hard-hit areas,” the Post reported.
“And Atlas advocated allowing infections to spread naturally among most of the population while protecting the most vulnerable and those in nursing homes until the United States reaches herd immunity, which experts say would cause excess deaths, according to three current and former administration officials.”
The story noted that Atlas and Birx have repeatedly clashed in recent weeks, and his presence has diminished her influence in the White House, but Pence “did not take sides between Atlas and Birx.”
During today’s press conference in Mississippi, one reporter asked Gov. Reeves if anyone at the White House influenced his views on herd immunity or his decisions.
“I would simply say, I can’t tell you what percentage of Mississippians would need to have the virus to reach herd immunity, but what I would tell you is that I don’t think herd immunity is an effective strategy unless vaccines are available across the board,” the governor said.
Reeves did not say whether or not anyone at the White House had sought to influence his views on herd immunity.
During today’s press conference, Dobbs said the State Department of Health recently traced an outbreak at a college to one student who got infected while attending a wedding off campus. He urged Mississippians to make changes to avoid a catastrophic fall and winter.
“I would recommend that we limit the size of holiday gatherings and keep it as much as possible to close nuclear families. … I missed my cousin’s wedding. I didn’t go to several family events because I don’t want to endanger them or risk bringing it back to my coworkers or my family members.”
Dobbs said his own recently engaged son and his fiancé have decided to push their wedding date back until 2022.
All Mississippi county health departments are offering free rapid testing this week. For more information, visit msdh.ms.gov.