Since Gov. Tate Reeves lifted a statewide mask mandate two months ago, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to record levels in Mississippi, where there is now an “uncontrolled spread” of the disease.
After the mandate ended Sept. 30, Mississippi’s cases rose from 98,190 to 143,879 (47%) and deaths from 2,969 to 3,676 (24%).
On Monday, Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, called for the statewide mask mandate to be resumed. “We have reasonable evidence that the county-by-county approach is not working,” she said. “It is not turning these numbers around.”
Former State Health Officer Dr. Alton Cobb said the mandate should have stayed in place. “It’s so obvious,” he said. “How is wearing a mask such a burden for people? It saves lives.”
A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that. The study in Kansas found that the weekly average for new infections fell by 6% in the two dozen counties that complied with that state’s mask mandate. In the 81 counties that opted out of the order, the rate increased 100%.
Dr. Claude Earl Fox III, a Mississippi native who previously served as state health officer in Alabama, called the coronavirus “an opportunist. It will grab any chance to infect somebody. Because of the unusual nature of the disease, people don’t know when they’re infected.”
Some Americans are insisting they have a right to not wear a mask, he said. “You have the right to kill somebody? You have a right to kill your next door neighbor? I don’t think you have that right.”
He compared it to someone who says they have a right to drink. “OK, do that, but you don’t have a right to drink and drive on the road,” he said. “It’s the same exact thing. You’re putting other people’s lives at risk.”
That led Reeves to impose a mask mandate on Aug. 4, joining 33 other states.
Weeks after that mandate, coronavirus cases began to fall. On Sept. 6, he bragged that Mississippi had “the lowest rate of coronavirus reproduction in the country.”
At the end of September, Reeves lifted Mississippi’s mask mandate, reassuring reporters that he could change his strategy if need be.
It didn’t take long to find out. By the end of October, the number of cases and deaths had begun to multiply at a greater rate.
This past weekend, new cases in Mississippi reached a record — nearly 2,000 in a single day. Over the past two weeks, the positivity rate in Mississippi has soared from less than 15% to more than 21%.
In contrast, the city of Jackson, which has kept its mask mandate in place, saw an 11.4% decrease in the infection rate during October, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said.
In a Facebook live address, Reeves stopped short of reinstituting a statewide mandate. Instead, he ordered 22 counties to wear masks and urging those living in the 60 other counties to “wear a mask, please.”
Lumumba questioned the governor’s decision. “There doesn’t appear to be a rhyme or reason to some of the decisions to reverse the statewide mask mandates,” he told CNBC.
On Nov. 14, Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician, tweeted out, “Statewide mask mandate worked in Mississippi. Why are we waiting @TateReeves? It is an inconvenience maybe but if it saves lives and keeps businesses open then really what is the harm? I don’t understand the delay.”
Woodward replied on Twitter: “Truth. It’s time. We are tired. And worried. Wearing a mask makes a difference. … We don’t have to continue to watch the trainwreck. We can change the outcome.”
In a news conference two days later, Woodward said the rising COVID numbers are reminiscent of what Mississippi saw in the summer before the mask mandate was implemented.
In the wake of record-high new infections of COVID (more than 500 teachers and more than 1,000 students, with more than 14,000 students quarantined), an increasing number of schools have switched to online-only learning.
“We all want the kids to be in school. We want there to be after-school activities and sports activities. We just have to keep our guard up,” Woodward said. “The child in K-12 who is positive (for COVID) and has few symptoms may be the person who inadvertently takes it home to their grandparents.”
Dr. Alan Jones, assistant vice chancellor for clinical affairs, said a large part of UMMC’s workforce “is tired, and an increasing number of them are out with COVID or being quarantined.”
Emergency room nurse Lacey Ward said it has been “so defeating to see so many people” in need of care. “When you have a full department and people still walking in the door, you have to figure out how to take care of them,” she said. And when she goes home, she fears she may inadvertently give the disease to her three boys. “I get terrified every day I come home.”
Health officials have reported zero ICU beds available in Jackson, and some medical clinics are reporting long lines outside.
Even if UMMC were to set up more beds, there isn’t enough staff, Woodward said. “We could not handle a surge of a whole lot more patients. We are at capacity.”
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said Mississippi is seeing “record-high numbers, and we’re seeing extreme stress on the health care system.”
He urged Mississippians to “please keep Thanksgiving small, local and outdoors.”
Despite his own daughter coming down with COVID, Reeves has rejected calls to reimpose the statewide mandate. “One of the things that’s very disappointing to me is that even some of our leading medical experts act as if a statewide mask mandate will solve all of our challenges,” he told WLOX-TV. “That’s simply not true.”
Experts predict the pandemic will get worse for Mississippi and the nation before it gets better, even with a vaccine on the horizon.
“This thing is like a wildlife,” Fox said. “It has exploded.”
He favors a mask mandate, but curbing the coronavirus now is difficult, he said. “Every day this pandemic goes on, people are more and more likely to run into somebody who has the disease. People need to realize that this virus doesn’t care who we are or where we live, it’s going to do what it’s going to do.”
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.