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First-Grade Teacher Dies in DeSoto County as Sheriff Refuses to Enforce Mask Order

Emojis representing Hernando Elementary School teachers with the message, "Hernando Elementary is Brighter With You Here" welcomed students back to school when classes resumed late in the summer. Photo courtesy Hernando Elementary School

A Mississippi educator has died of COVID-19 in DeSoto County, Miss., where the local sheriff is refusing to enforce mask mandates even amid widespread infection. For months, other top local officials have spread misinformation about the virus and downplayed the pandemic’s severity.

Fox13 Memphis broke the news last night that a first grade teacher assistant at Hernando Elementary School “died from complications due to COVID-19.” School officials have not released the teacher’s name, but the news channel reported that the educator “was older” and “had underlying health conditions.”

The DeSoto County School District has not responded to this publication’s request for comment, but Magnolia State Live reported that officials had also confirmed the death to them and that the teacher died “after being hospitalized for weeks with COVID-19 and pneumonia.” COVID-19 patients often develop pneumonia.

During the week of Nov. 2-6, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 10 new COVID-19 cases among teachers and staff at Hernando Elementary, bringing the total since the start of school to 27. Unlike many high schools, though, the number of students who tested positive was significantly lower—just 13.

Before schools began in July, University of Southern Mississippi historian Douglas Chambers predicted that young children, who are often symptom-free when they get infected, could quietly spread the virus undetected.

“They will infect each other, and their families and their teachers. This is the truth,” Chambers, who has studied past pandemics and closely examined COVID-19 data in a scholarly fashion since the pandemic arrived, said in July.

That same month, the Mississippi Association for Educators released a survey that included anonymous comments from teachers who worried about returning to in-class instruction.

“I beg those who are in decision making positions to please take more time. Death is final and in this case even preventable is schools (implement) virtual or distancing learning for the fall semester as the data is closely monitored,” one unidentified DeSoto County teacher said.

‘Things Are Really Starting to Heat Up’

During a MSDH press conference today, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs told the Mississippi Free Press that he did not have any details on the Hernando Elementary death and that he “want(s) to be very sensitive to the privacy of individuals.” 

He did acknowledge that there have been cases of teachers and at least one coach dying from COVID-19 since schools reopened in the late summer.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers told the Mississippi Free Press today the department is not reporting those numbers because “we don’t always have a specific occupation depending on how those deaths are reported.” He also cited privacy concerns.

“But we do know, and like we’ve talked about, we are starting to see a really significant impact on the schools with teacher cases and student cases,” he said, noting that at least two children under the age of 11 and another person between the age of 11 and 20 has died due to complications from COVID-19.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, seen here at a Nov. 12 press conference, said MSDH does keep track of teacher deaths in the state. Photo courtesy MSDH

Byers said that “things are really starting to heat up” in the schools. Last week, schools identified more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases among students, about twice as many as reported in the week prior, he said. Schools also identified more than 500 cases among teachers and staff, he said.

“More than 65 schools have reported temporarily dismissing their classes and going virtual,” Byers said.

The state epidemiologist told reporters that schools quarantined about 14,000 students last week, up from 9,000 the week prior. MSDH has not yet released the full report for last week’s numbers in K-12 schools.

‘DeSoto is On Fire’

News of the Hernando Elementary teacher’s death yesterday came after The DeSoto County Sheriff Department says it will not enforce Gov. Tate Reeves’ mask mandate or social-distancing orders even as COVID-19 ravages the county.

“Sheriff (Bill) Rasco doesn’t force his deputies to wear masks in settings where the host or property owner doesn’t require it. … We will not issue citations for not wearing masks, nor will we enforce Governor Tate Reeves mandate on social distancing,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement on Nov. 11.

Reeves’ orders do not require citations for people who fail to follow social-distancing guidelines. While the governor’s orders do not include an enforcement mechanism, the sheriff department’s announcement could undermine efforts to encourage county residents to wear masks in one of the hardest-hit parts of the state.

After issuing a statewide mask mandate that helped beat back the summer wave of coronavirus cases, the governor called it a success and let it expire on Sept. 30. Since mid-October, though, the governor has been reinstituting mask mandates on a county-by-county basis, including DeSoto County.

The northwest Mississippi county, which is situated just below the Mississippi-Tennessee state line, has experienced some of the worst COVID-19 growth in the state, though. In a Nov. 12 roundtable discussion with the Mississippi State Department of Health, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs cited DeSoto County’s “defiance” of masking and social-distancing guidelines.

“DeSoto is on fire. It’s red hot with cases. If I were in DeSoto, I wouldn’t go out,” he said. “I would stay in my house as much as possible, because DeSoto is eat up with coronavirus cases.”

Today, only three ICU beds remain available between the county’s three hospitals.

Mask mandates for DeSoto and 15 other counties were set to expire on Nov. 11. Gov. Reeves allowed the mask orders to expire in seven counties that had shown improvement, but DeSoto, where businesses and local officials have resisted masking and social distancing orders, was not among them. Gov. Reeves extended the order there until Dec. 11, citeing continued high growth rates.

Children and teachers statewide are required to wear masks while at school in all 82 counties.

‘I Choose Not to Wear a Mask to Protect You’

The DeSoto County sheriff, a Republican, is not alone in resisting the COVID-19 safety measures or downplaying the pandemic or taking public stands against the GOP governor’s orders. A number of top local DeSoto County leaders from Reeves’ own party have spoken out strongly against social-distancing guidelines or even helped spread disinformation about the pandemic.

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco, left, made an appearance with then-Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster, right, when Foster ran for governor in 2019. Photo courtesy Sheriff Bill Rosca

In September, current Mississippi House Reps. Steve Hopkins, Dan Eubanks and Dana Criswell, all DeSoto County Republicans, joined a Mississippi Freedom Caucus letter urging Gov. Reeves to “end these executive orders” on COVID-19, masks and social distancing. 

In Hernando, former Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster, has used social media to push conspiracy theories about the virus for months. The businessman challenged Reeves in last year’s Republican primary for governor. Sheriff Rasco made appearances with Foster during that campaign.

Last month, Foster repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Election Flu,” falsely implying that the media was hyping the virus to hurt Trump’s re-election bid and would stop talking about it after the Nov. 3 election—a prediction that has failed to materialize as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide.

“I choose not to wear a mask to protect you from the government,” Foster tweeted yesterday, after returning from a temporary Twitter suspension for posting false information.

DeSoto County’s tourism association, Visit DeSoto County, has recently promoted Foster’s Hernando agritourism business, Cedar Hill Farm, as part of the organization’s #VisitMSResponsibly campaign to attract tourists amid the pandemic. 

Foster’s business has appeared in promotional materials for the association on social media and in an ad that ran on a Little Rock, Ark., TV station.

DeSoto Coroner Made Misleading Claims

In August, DeSoto County Coroner Josh Pounders claimed in a Facebook post that the Mississippi State Department of Health was overstating the number of COVID-19 deaths in the county and causing “unnecessary fear in the public and … stress to the citizens in this county.” 

He claimed that “all” 24 DeSoto County residents who died of COVID-19 in July “had major medical problems prior” to contracting the virus. He said MSDH should not have counted those as COVID-19 deaths because “many of these COVID deaths are of people who were on hospice care with a terminal diagnosis” and “most of these deaths have been people over the age of 75.”

WLOX factchecked the coroner’s claims, which had already spread widely on social media, citing other county coroners who rebuffed the idea that MSDH was improperly classifying deaths. Simpson County Coroner Terry Tutor, the station reported, said MSDH “specifically says not to list a death as being caused by COVID simply because of a positive test.”

During an August press conference, Dr. Dobbs said Pounders’ claim was based on a false premise.

“Please know that the person who puts the cause of death on the death certificates are the physicians and the coroners,” the state health officer said. “We have no role in assigning the cause of death on the death certificates.”

Dobbs added during that August press conference that officials do not include deaths in the COVID-19 count in cases where the deceased was positive for the virus, but officials do not believe it caused their death.

‘No Regrets’

Last week, Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite, who leads the county’s largest city, claimed in a Nov. 13 Facebook post that health experts’ warnings about the virus are overblown.

“With all the positive things happening in Southaven and DeSoto County, the last thing I want to post about is COVID-19. If I may be very candid with all, I’m so tired of talking about this,” he wrote, claiming that “99.95% of all DeSoto Countians have survived this virus.”

The mayor was apparently calculating a “survival rate” based on the entire population of the county, whether individuals have been infected with COVID-19 or not.

“It’s far more deadly than that, let’s not try to minimize the severity of that. … For older folks, the death rate is very high,” Dr. Dobbs said during today’s MSDH Zoom press conference.

Mussellwhite also posited that COVID-19 growth is not as bad as the state health officer and Gov. Reeves say. He claimed that DeSoto County’s high case numbers were caused by MSDH counting cases from neighboring Shelby County, Tenn., an unfounded assertion that Dr. Dobbs rebuffed in the MSDH Zoom press conference today.

“That is absolutely not true,” the state health officer said this afternoon. Only DeSoto County residents are included in the county’s total, he said.

In the press conference, Dobbs said he had “no regrets” for speaking up about the situation in DeSoto County.

‘That’s What Leaders Are For’

WJTV reporter Gerald Harris asked Dobbs today if he thinks there is anything the governor should be doing that he is not currently doing.

“This is a moment that requires leadership from everyone. … Everybody who has a leadership position in schools needs to step up and do everything they can do to protect the people in their charge,” the state health officer said.

Dobbs said he understands that it can make people “uncomfortable” to do the things “that work,” like requiring masking and strict social distancing, but that making hard decisions is necessary to save lives.

 “That’s what leaders are for,” he said.

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