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Mississippi's top doctor says COVID is far worse than it's ever been in the state

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Mississippi’s state health director said the pandemic is worse in the state than it’s ever been, as hospitals run out of beds and thousands of students have already tested positive for the virus since schools opened earlier this month.

“We are clearly at the worst part of the pandemic that we’ve seen throughout, and it’s continued to worsen,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs said at a briefing on Wednesday. “We’re seeing higher and higher numbers of not just cases but hospitalizations, people in intensive care units, life support. And sadly, as we’ve seen, additional deaths are going to follow. Without a doubt we have surpassed our previous peaks by a substantial margin, and we expect to see that continue.”

Dobbs, who was appointed by the Mississippi State Department of Health in late 2018 after serving in an interim capacity, has found his encouragement of mask wearing at odds with Gov. Tate Reeves’s policies. Reeves, a Republican, has been steadfastly against a statewide mask mandate, and in late July he called the idea of wearing masks inside “foolish” and “harmful.”

Thomas Dobbs, right, and Tate Reeves
Mississippi State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs, right, watches an unmasked Gov. Tate Reeves at a news briefing regarding Mississippi's COVID-19 response. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

“It reeks of political panic so as to appear they are in control,” Reeves said during an outdoor speech. “It has nothing — let me say that again — it has nothing to do with rational science. In Mississippi, we believe in freedom.”

According to tracking from the New York Times, Mississippi is ranked second among states for both the most cases and the most deaths per 100,000 over the last seven days, in addition to ranking third in hospitalizations. According to the same tracking, Mississippi is ranked next to last among both the percentage of the 18-and-older population who have received at least one dose of the vaccine and the percentage of those 18 and older who are fully vaccinated.

Cases in the state have continued to surge, with the number of hospitalizations and patients on ventilators already double the amount from late July, according to Mississippi State Department of Health data. The department reported 36 new deaths and 4,085 new cases Wednesday, and a second field hospital dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients in Jackson was expected to open in a parking garage as early as Wednesday.

Health officials said that as of the Wednesday morning report, 251 patients were in the emergency room awaiting hospital beds and just six ICU beds were available in the entire state for 48 patients who needed them. They added that staffing was lagging behind the requests, which was extending the turnaround time of emergency medical services.

“With the rapid increase that we’re seeing right now, that’s one of the things that’s putting a lot of the pressure on the hospital,” Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist, said during Wednesday’s briefing. “That we’re having so many cases that are occurring so quickly, and when you have a lot of cases, that’s going to translate into a lot of hospitalizations and, unfortunately, a lot of deaths.”

Dobbs noted Wednesday that 89 percent of hospitalizations and 86 percent of deaths were among the unvaccinated, emphasizing that “vaccination is our best way out of this.” He added that he was pleased with the recent rise in people getting their first vaccine dose. The reigning Miss USA, Mississippi native Asya Branch, visited the state earlier this month to help promote vaccinations. Dobbs, however, said the results of the increase in weekly vaccinations administered wouldn’t be felt until September.

Thomas Dobbs
Dr. Thomas Dobbs at a House subcommittee hearing in March 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Most Mississippi schools began classes earlier this month even though the virus was quickly spreading, as it has done elsewhere across the country. At a Friday briefing, Reeves downplayed the virus’s threat to children, saying, “If you look at those individuals under the age of 12, what you find is that it is very rare that kids under the age of 12 have anything other than the sniffles.”

A day later, the death of 13-year-old Mkayla Robinson was reported by the Smith County Reformer, which said she had died from coronavirus-related complications. Reeves opted against any kind of mask mandate in schools, leaving it up to individual school districts. When the Smith County School District went back to school on Aug. 6 it did not require masks, but it reversed that decision on Aug. 10, requiring them for everyone on campus.

Last month, the state’s teachers' union called on Reeves to institute a statewide mask mandate for schools, but he declined to do so and said he’d let Mississippi’s COVID-19 state of emergency end on Aug. 15. Three days before it was set to expire, he extended it for another month but added, “There will be no lockdowns and there will be no statewide mandates.” Reeves had temporarily required masks and delayed the start of school last summer.

Byers said Tuesday that about 20,000 students, or 4.5 percent of the public school population, are in quarantine. Data published by the state health department found more than 4,500 students and nearly 1,000 Mississippi faculty members and staff tested positive last week.

Medical workers with Delta Health Center prepare to vaccinate people at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a rural Delta community on April 29, 2021 in Leland, Mississippi. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Medical workers prepare to vaccinate people at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Leland, Miss., in April. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

According to a report from the Mississippi Free Press, the entire Pearl River County School District announced it was going virtual after being open for only one week due to the fact that nearly 40 percent of one high school was already in quarantine. Classes had begun at the school on Aug. 5 with no mask mandate.

Dobbs’s frustration has been bubbling over all summer. In July, he condemned what he called “anti-science Nazis" on social media — a remark criticized by a Republican state representative. He later apologized for “getting away from a sense of calm decorum” but said he was upset “because we’re gonna watch people needlessly die over the next month or two for no good reason.”

“There is a mountain of lies and disinformation that is being promulgated by a relatively small number of misinformed, disillusioned people, and it’s leading folks astray,” Dobbs said during a July roundtable. “It’s very difficult to watch. It’s upsetting to see this perpetual nonsense go unchallenged, and I’m here to fight for Mississippi.”

At the Friday briefing, Reeves said he and his family had been vaccinated and reiterated that “the main thing we want everyone who is watching to understand is that we believe that the vaccine is effective and it is safe and that it helps protect you from COVID-19.” He added that he didn’t support vaccine passports or “mask shaming on either side” and said he had no intention of mandating vaccines for state employees.

The governor also accused one reporter who was wearing a mask of “virtue signaling” and said they should just stay home if they were concerned about getting the virus.

Attendees gather to listen to music at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, U.S., on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Rory Doyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Attendees at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., in April. (Rory Doyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At the same event, Dobbs said, “We do know kids in a structured setting with masks on is the right thing to do to keep kids in schools longer.” The day before his briefing with the governor, Dobbs told a group of business leaders via Zoom, “We’re going to lose more kids. It’s just going to happen.”

When asked Wednesday if the state government could do more to fight the surge, Dobbs said he appreciated Reeves and leaders in the Legislature for promoting vaccines.

The White House has escalated its battle with some Republican governors over their opposition to mask mandates. Earlier this month, Asa Hutchinson, the GOP governor of neighboring Arkansas, said he regretted signing a law banning mask mandates. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold funding from school districts that institute mandates. On Tuesday, the office of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has opposed vaccine and mask mandates, announced he had tested positive for the virus.

Robinson, the most recent minor in the state to die from COVID-19, was mourned following her death as members of the community called for further action to protect young residents. She is the fifth child to die of the virus since March 2020.

“It is with great sadness, and a broken heart, that I announce the passing of one of my 8th grade band students,” wrote Raleigh High School band director Paul Harrison on Facebook. “She was the perfect student. Every teacher loved her and wanted 30 more just like her. Please pray for Raleigh Junior High, the band, and especially the family as they deal with this.”

An empty bed in the ICU Covid-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital  in Jonesboro, Arkansas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (Houston Cofield/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An empty bed in the ICU COVID-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark. (Houston Cofield/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Friday, the Smith County School District reported 82 COVID-19 cases and more than 400 quarantined staff and children. According to New York Times tracking, 23 percent of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated.

"We're told every day that this new Delta [variant] is attacking babies, and we can see that it’s true,” Pastor Ronald Van Wilbon said on the steps of Raleigh High School Sunday. “We cannot afford to continue to lose children — the price is too high. We are grieving the life of a 13-year-old baby that has left a mother, a father, two little brothers, a family and classmates behind due to COVID-19.”

Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo News last week that while the risk to children is still relatively rare, it’s not zero.

“Kids should definitely wear masks,” Rivers said. “They reduce risk. They do not eliminate risk, which is why it’s better if everyone wears them.”

“In many places, people went back to normal activities because they’re vaccinated and are able to do so relatively safely,” she added. “But in places where vaccination rates are low and there’s a lot of virus circulating — like the South right now — the level of community transmission has a great deal of bearing on the risk that the virus will be introduced into the school building.”

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