After Big Thanksgiving Dinners, Plan Small Christmas Funerals, Health Experts Warn

Health workers care for an ICU patient with COVID-19 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where hospital beds are now full. Photo courtesy UMMC

Mississippians should plan “to have very small Thanksgiving gatherings” with only nuclear family members this year to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and other public health officials warned on Friday.

“You’re going to have a lot of sick folks who caught (COVID-19) during Thanksgiving. We know this is the perfect milieu, having young folks and old folks and folks with chronic illness around the table—and then death,” Dobbs said during a sober Mississippi State Medical Association Zoom meeting with fellow physicians on Nov. 12.

The state’s top health official urged even Mississippians who are having small holiday gatherings to observe 6 feet of social distancing and to hold the gatherings outdoors, where the chance of transmission is lower.

“We don’t really want to see Mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas,” MSMA President Dr. Mark Horne said during the meeting, concurring with the state health officer.

“We’re going to see some of that. It’s going to happen,” Dobbs replied.

Horne agreed.

“It’s going to happen. You’re going to say hi at Thanksgiving, it’s so nice to see you, and you’re either going to be visiting her by Facetime in the ICU or planning a small funeral by Christmas,” the MSMA president said.

‘Nowhere For You to Go If You Have a Car Wreck’

Mississippi State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers also weighed in, urging Mississippians to avoid shopping on Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season when hundreds or thousands often enter crowded retail stores and shopping malls for gift deals.

“Please don’t go to Black Friday. Those big gatherings the day after Thanksgiving are going to a disaster for potential transmission. We can’t keep doing those big gatherings and be perpetually surprised at where the cases are coming from,” Byers said.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs is warning that the holidays could become even deadlier unless Mississippians avoid large Thanksgiving gatherings and take masking and social distancing more seriously. Photo courtesy MSDH

Hospital capacity to accept new patients is crumbling, Dobbs said. He cited a conversation last week with a physician who had decided to send a Mississippi patient to a hospital in Pensacola, Fla., after failing to get them in a bed anywhere in Mississippi. 

That doctor, Dobbs said, settled on Pensacola after also trying and failing to find beds for the patient in the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Mobile. He urged Mississippians to exercise caution, not just when it comes to avoiding the virus, but more generally.

“Be careful, because there’s nowhere for you to go if you have a car wreck,” the state health officer said. “Unfortunately, we’re not having a collective appreciation for how serious this is. Please protect yourself, protect your family, and please protect the vulnerable. Because it’s going to be a rough few weeks.”

The health leaders said that, while the state may receive an initial round of Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19 vaccines as early as mid-to-late December, the allocation will be less than 200,000. The state will prioritize giving the initial rounds to health-care workers with vulnerabilities, they said. For the average Mississippian, it will likely be some time next year before vaccines are widely available.

Over the past seven days, Mississippi has reported around 7,963 new COVID-19 cases and 102 additional deaths. The seven-day daily average is now 1,138, just below the summer wave’s peak of 1,201 average daily cases. 

“Last week was our worst week since late July or early August. That has me concerned,” Gov. Tate Reeves said in a live-streamed address today.

During August and July, care capacity at hospitals across the state hit critical levels as staffed beds and intensive care beds filled up. At the peak, almost 1,000 Mississippians were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Dobbs: ‘Risk Was Not Lower’ After Mandate’s End

Mississippi successfully beat back the summer wave after Reeves ordered mask-wearing in public for residents of nearly half of the state’s counties in July and issued a statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4.

The current seven-day daily case average is more than double what it was on the day Reeve allowed the mask mandate to expire on Sept. 30, though. The average then was down to just 500 daily new cases.

“We have to make sure that we do not go back to the more dangerous times of serious hospital capacity issues. I am not extending the mask mandate. … I still plan to wear them, and I expect that most people in our state will still wear them often,” Gov. Reeves said when he announced he would let the mask mandate expire ahead of the holiday season.

But across the state, public mask wearing quickly fell off in early October, and COVID-19 cases began to climb.

“We’ve heard a bunch of stories about how when the mask mandate fell, people had a false impression that the risk was lower. And it wasn’t. The risk was not lower,” Dr. Dobbs said during a Nov. 12 MSDH discussion about COVID-19 that the department broadcast live on Facebook. “And we’ve seen especially in church congregations big outbreaks because the churches let their guard down.”

Brenda Pittman, left, died with COVID-19 on Aug. 10, a week before she would have resumed teaching at West Marion Elementary School. Her husband, Charlie Pittman, died six days later on Aug. 16. Photo courtesy Pittman family.

The state health officer explained that churches can be “a real powder keg for deaths” because of the mixture of younger people, who often carry the virus but exhibit no symptoms, with older, more vulnerable congregants.

“I’m just going to be straight up with y’all. … It is really bad. Our hospitals are full, we’re overloaded, our caseload is unbelievable. If you have any vulnerability, you really need to stay home as much as you can, not go to church and not be socializing,” Dobbs said.

In August, 49-year-old Marion County school teacher Brenda Pittman died of COVID-19 one week before classes were set to resume; her husband, 71-year-old Charlie Pittman, died from the virus days later. Before their diagnosis in July, the couple attended services at their small home church, Mt. Carmel Church of God, where an outbreak led to dozens of infections that month. 

‘Red Hot With Cases’

Hospitalizations hit a post-summer low of just 393 cases on Oct. 3, three days after the governor’s mask mandate expired, but have since continually climbed. Today, 723 MIssissippians are hospitalized with the virus, including 180 who are in ICU beds.

The current figure is still not as high as the 977 Mississippians who were hospitalized and the 377 who were in ICU beds on Aug. 5, when the summer wave of ICU patients peaked. But hospitals were already more crowded due to non-COVID-19 illnesses than they were during the summer, making the situation even more precarious.

MSDH reported today that only about 18% of ICU beds remain available statewide and about 28% of regular staffed beds. That is a slight improvement from last Thursday, when only about 12% of ICU beds and 20% of regular beds were unoccupied.

The slight improvements in hospital bed availability likely reflect discharges among patients with non-COVID-19 illnesses or symptoms; the number of Mississippians hospitalized with COVID-19 has only increased by 45 since last Thursday.

Despite a surge that could soon overwhelm hospitals statewide, Gov. Reeves has not signaled plans to reinstate a statewide mask mandate. Starting in mid-October, as cases began to tick up, he began reintroducing mask orders on a county-by-county basis for areas with the worst spikes. 

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco, seen here speaking to U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith during a 2018 visit, is refusing to enforce Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ mask order for the county despite surging cases and dwindling hospital capacity there. Photo courtesy Desoto County Sheriff Department

Those orders have had mixed results, though, with residents in some counties complying better than others. The DeSoto County Sheriff and other local leaders are refusing to enforce or support the governor’s mask orders for the COVID-19 plagued county, where only one ICU bed remains.

“DeSoto is on fire. It’s red hot with cases. If I were in DeSoto, I wouldn’t go out,” Dr. Dobbs said during the MSDH roundtable late last week. “I would stay in my house as much as possible. Because DeSoto is eat up with coronavirus cases.”

Today, Gov. Reeves added seven more counties to the list of those under county-level mask orders, including Hinds, Madison, Pontotoc, Tate, Winston, Itawamba, and Montgomery counties. That brings the total number of counties with mask mandates up to 22 of Mississippi’s 82 counties.

“Just because you are or you are not in these 22 counties does not change what is in the best interest for you and your family,” Reeves said today, showing off his black and gold Southern Miss mask. “If you go out in public, wear a mask. Please. Wear a mask.”

‘We’ve Chosen the Wrong Path’

During the Nov. 13 Mississippi State Medical Association discussion, Dr. Dobbs expressed exasperation. “We do know masks work,” he said. “Not only do we have evidence pre-COVID, but we have improving evidence about how it works collectively.”

He pointed to Taiwan, an east Asian nation with a population eight times the size of Mississippi’s.

“Why in the world does Taiwan, a country of 23 million people, only have a few hundred cases and a handful of deaths and a roaring economy?” he said. “It’s because they’re wearing a mask and they’re not having social gatherings and they’re staying away from one another other than when they’re working.”

The same day Dobbs highlighted Taiwan, the country reported its biggest one-day COVID-19 spike in months—but that spike amounted to just eight new cases. Yesterday, the country reported just one new case.

Despite the surge in new COVID-19 cases, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has signaled no plans to issue a new statewide mask mandate. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

Taiwan diagnosed its first novel coronavirus case in January, two months before the pandemic arrived in Mississippi. When the pandemic first arrived on its shores, the east Asian country quickly took action to limit the spread of the virus. 

That country has recorded just 603 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths since the pandemic arrived there.

Almost every day now, Mississippi, with a population of just 2.9 million people, reports more COVID-19 cases and deaths than Taiwan has identified during all of 2020.

Since the pandemic arrived in Mississippi in March, the state has identified about 135,000 cases. The virus has killed at least 3,545 Mississippians, MSDH reports. It takes weeks for a surge in new deaths to accompany a surge in cases, meaning the state will likely see a significant uptick in daily deaths later this month.

“We’ve chosen the wrong path,” Dr. Dobbs said at the Nov. 13 press conference. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

Dobbs: Death ‘Coming For A Lot of People’

The state health officer urged Mississippians to ramp up their efforts to wear masks, social distance and to protect their family members—especially those with vulnerabilities like age, obesity, diabetes or heart disease. Even around family members or friends who do not live in the same house, Dobbs said, Mississippians should wear masks.

“We’re at a really tenuous position right now, and we’ve become a little bit numb to the deaths,” he said. “And it’s coming for a lot of people. A lot of Mississippians are going to lose loved ones that they could’ve had many decades to live with. And some of them are going to lose kids, too.”

Since September, Mississippi reported that two children, one younger than 5 and the other between the ages of 6 and 11, have died due to complications caused by COVID-19. In recent weeks, though, Dobbs said, the state has seen a particular uptick in cases among people age 50 and older, who are particularly susceptible to experiencing severe or deadly cases.

Dobbs said a relative of his who is in her 60s recently lost her best friend.

“They were planning to take care of one another as they aged and spend their senior years together. They had their names on one another’s checking account. They were really tight. And one of them got COVID-19 and died in the hospital. And that’s what drives me crazy. This didn’t have to happen,” Mississippi’s top health official said.

“Our complacency with this really keeps me up at night, because now her best friend is gone, and whole decades of a wonderful life together are erased because of a single moment of infection. She was in her 60s. It doesn’t mean she deserved to die. … It just wears me out.”

Mississippians should not “write off” deaths just because they are older or have comorbidities, Dobbs said. He was rebuking a common refrain among those who downplay the pandemic’s severity by claiming that most people who die from the virus would have likely died soon from age or illness anyway.

That myth, which often finds voice on social media and even in the words of the current president, and others have convinced many across the country that expert warnings about the dangers of COVID-19 are overblown, eroding public health efforts to get more people to wear masks and follow other social distancing guidelines.

“Take care of your family, because the collective effort has been insufficient, just to be honest,” Dobbs said. “So now’s the time to protect your family and the vulnerable ones you love.”

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