As people across Mississippi greeted the winter solstice with lavish Christmas parties, sang alongside one another in maskless church services and even gathered for gender-reveal parties, beleaguered hospitals through the Magnolia State began taking extreme measures to stay afloat amid a mounting deluge of COVID-19 patients.
“A lot of our ICUs are jam-packed with ICU patients because they have no place to go,” Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during the State Department of Health’s Communities of Faith COVID-19 Town Hall today. “We have some ICUs with two people in each room. So we’re doubling up on ICU rooms, which we’ve never done before. And we’re going to have to make more measures as we go through this.”
Over and over again, the state’s top physician said, surges in COVID-19 cases have followed holidays, including Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween and most recently Thanksgiving. But as many Mississippians get ready for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, the stress on hospitals is the worst it has ever been, with the number of Mississippians in hospitals, in ICUs and on ventilators hitting all-time highs.
Rural Mississippians Dying Without Care
“We’ve actually had to institute a plan where hospitals had to admit patients whether they had room or not,” Dobbs said today. “They just have to find a place for them. We’ve had people die in rural areas, sadly, because they did not have access to referrals for critical care. So we’ve just had to basically put the pressure on our health partners to make sure they take care of everybody as best they can.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi saw a rash of closures among rural emergency rooms after then-Gov. Phil Bryant refused to accept billions in federal funds to expand Medicaid in the state to cover as many as 300,000 of the state’s poor and uninsured—a decision current Gov. Tate Reeves stands by.
By 2019, half of the state’s rural hospitals were in danger of closing because they had to care for thousands of patients who would have qualified for Medicaid under expansion but, in its absence, had no way to pay for treatment. Like the instances Dobbs cited today, stories have emerged in recent years of rural Mississippians dying due to lack of local emergency care following hospital closures.
“We’ve got to get through this holiday season,” Dr. Dobbs said today, noting that Magnolia State residents should have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines by the spring. “We want to bring as many Mississippians across that threshold with us as we can.”
‘Funeral After Funeral That Came From a Funeral’
The state health officer said he worries that, in the harshest period of the pandemic yet, many Mississippians are no longer taking the virus seriously and are, instead, flagrantly violating public health guidelines meant to save lives.
“We saw an outbreak at a gender-reveal party recently, which drives me crazy. That’s something that’s totally not necessary,” he said today. “We saw an outbreak with 103 cheerleading teams that came down to Jackson to compete, and we had an outbreak from a young girl who didn’t know she had COVID and exposed a ton of people. So there are things we are doing right now that are really worrisome.”
But even mourning the dead poses risks, the state health officer said.
“The most dangerous thing to do in Mississippi right now is to go to a funeral,” Dobbs said. “We’ve seen funeral after funeral that came from a funeral.”
Families, he said, should avoid indoor Christmas gatherings with people who do not live in the same household. “Most people catch coronavirus from someone they know, from someone they love. And that’s one of the things that’s so insidious about this virus.”
The state health officer also urged Mississippians to avoid in-person church services and opt for virtual ones instead. “If you can get someone at just the right time with their infection, they can create an aerosol mist that will fill the room with coronavirus,” Dobbs said.
In one church outbreak early on in the pandemic, he said, 35 of 92 attendees in a single church service became infected with COVID-19 after attending a single church service together. Three of them died.
If people do insist on attending church gatherings, though, they should opt for outdoor services if possible, maintain a distance of 6 feet, wear a mask and avoid physical greetings, Dr. Dobbs said. Gov. Reeves has refused to limit church services amid the pandemic, citing religious-liberty concerns despite a raft of outbreaks in houses of worship that did not follow masking or social distancing guidelines
He noted that choirs are high risk for spreading COVID-19 and said congregants should avoid singing, calling it “a high-risk mechanism through which coronavirus can spread.”
‘Coronavirus is Absolutely Killing People’
Despite their efforts to convince more Mississippians to take the pandemic seriously, though, Dobbs said he and others at the State Department of Health are “extremely concerned about a potential surge on top of a surge going through the Christmas holidays.”
That echoes warnings he and others, including State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers, gave in the leadup to Thanksgiving. During one MSDH press conference, the two men warned that people who gather for large Thanksgiving dinners could be planning small Christmas funerals weeks later.
For many families, that reality has materialized. Yesterday, Mississippi reported 79 deaths—the most deaths reported on any single day since the pandemic began. MSDH reported another 43 dead today. Daily new cases numbers continue to hover around all-time highs, too, with 2,634 more Mississippians reported positive for COVID-19 today.
Dobbs lamented that he and other public-health leaders have “spent a pretty good bit of our response responding to conspiracy theories.”
Mississippi’s official COVID-19 death toll since the pandemic arrived here in March is 4,533. The real number, though, is likely closer to 5,800. Dobbs pointed today to MSDH data that shows that 5,800 more Mississippians have died of COVID-19 so far this year than died on average during each year from 2017 to 2019.
“Coronavirus is absolutely killing people. … The people who died from coronavirus, by and large, would be here next year if not for coronavirus,” he said.
The 5,800 excess deaths so far this year is nearing the estimated raw death toll from the last pandemic of a similar magnitude to hit the state. In 1918, about 6,200 Mississippians died from the so-called “Spanish Flu” (which scientists believe did not originate in Spain) over a two-year period. But Mississippi’s population was about one-third smaller 100 years ago.
Mask Mandates Now Cover All But Four Counties
Despite the escalating medical crisis, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves still has not reissued a statewide mask mandate. Amidst the peak of the summer COVID-19 wave, the governor issued one on Aug. 4, saying he wanted “to see college football.” Less than two months later, on Sept. 30, he hailed the order as a success, noting that the average number of new cases per day had dropped dramatically. He then let the mandate expire, saying he trusted Mississippians to continue wearing masks without “the heavy hand of government” compelling them.
Mask compliance quickly plummeted, though, and cases, hospitalizations and deaths soon began to climb again. By late November, the state had surpassed its summer daily case records. Reeves began reintroducing mask mandates in a handful of the counties with the worst increases in mid-October.
By late November, four of the state’s top physicians were calling on Reeves to reissue a statewide mask mandate to help hospitals avoid being overwhelmed with cases and to save lives as the state headed into the holidays. At the time, Reeves had ordered mask mandates in 22 of the state’s 82 counties.
Instead, the governor, who has faced political pressure from conservative voters to weaken public-health orders, blasted the four doctors in a press conference.
“I get frustrated when so-called experts decide that if we just did one more thing, that we could change this,” Gov. Reeves said.
The governor vowed to continue issuing mask mandates on a county-by-county basis only after those counties hit a certain threshold for COVID-19 spread. By yesterday, 78 of Mississippi’s 82 counties had qualified for and were under Reeves’ county-level mask mandates, but the governor could still technically say he had not yielded to the “so-called experts” and their demands for a statewide mask order.
“This morning, I signed an executive order extending our mask rules to all counties that qualify—which is now every county except four very small ones. We all need to be extra aware. You know what to do! Protect yourself and your family. Stay safe, and Merry Christmas,” Gov. Reeves tweeted yesterday.
The only counties left without mask mandates are Issaquena, Sharkey, Claiborne and Tunica counties.
‘Our Arrogant Resistance’
The governor did not hold a press conference to announce the new orders as he has in the past. During the relatively less severe summer wave, the governor held 29 press conferences during a three-month period from June to August. Between October, November and the first 23 days of December, though, the governor has held just six press conferences—including two this month.
But Reeves did assemble a press event late last week to declare Sunday, Dec. 20, a Day of Prayer, Fasting and Humility.
“Please grant wisdom to elected officials, business leaders, pastors, teachers, parents, and everyone else who has been asked to make tough decisions with no playbook in this time,” the governor prayed by tweet this past Sunday. “Please help us to do your will, not lean on our own understanding, acknowledge you in all things, and allow you to make our path straight without our arrogant resistance.”