State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said Friday that residents not following general safety precautions is likely the largest factor in the state’s current spike in new cases of COVID-19.
During a news conference Friday, Dobbs said the fact that so many people seem to have stopped using masks following the expiration of the governor’s executive order has him concerned.
“Why we would move away from that … has me perplexed and I’m extremely disappointed,” he said.
Following the news of Thursday’s number of new cases, Anita Henderson, a pediatrician in Hattiesburg and president-elect of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, tweeted a screenshot of the daily numbers from the state health department.
“Mask mandate lifted by Tate Reeves two weeks ago,” Henderson wrote. “We are in for a long hard winter folks.”
The concerns come as Mississippi has its second consecutive day since the summer of more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases being reported. Thursday’s report of 1,322 new cases was the biggest spike since mid-August.
According to data from the Mississippi Department of Health, there have been 109,255 total reported cases in the state. Current estimates presume 94,165 of those cases have recovered. More than 3,100 people have died due to complications from the virus.
Dobbs said the number of cases are rapidly growing among the populations most vulnerable to the virus, including those 50 and older. Hospitals in the state are beginning to run out of beds for new patients, and as temperatures cool, the state is headed into flu season with little capacity, he said.
On Monday, Dobbs said six hospitals — all in the Jackson metro area — no longer have beds available for new patients in their intensive care units.
“We are greatly concerned that our healthcare system might be overly taxed,” Dobbs said.
State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said the sate had a virus positivity rate of 8.5% during the last week of September. In the first week of October, the rate increased to 9.5%.
The state health department has been receiving more reports or people hosting indoor events and closely-packed outdoor gatherings without using masks or social distancing measures, Byers said. All of these are major factors that are increasing the spread.
He said that while some new cases are appearing in long-term care facilities, some counties are starting to see increases in the general population ages 65 and older.
Officials warn residents as cases spike across the state
Mississippi’s resurgence in COVID-19 cases has prompted concern from state officials. On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves reminded residents to protect themselves, stating he did not want to resort to issuing another executive order requiring masks statewide.
However, Dobbs said he is constantly in contact with the governor and more aggressive action regarding safety measures could come from Reeves’ office as early as next week.
Exposures impacting schools, colleges across the state
Even as schools and higher learning institutions have reopened, the pandemic has continued to hamper efforts to find a new normal.
On Thursday, Sumrall High School was forced to put its entire population of 600 students in quarantine due to possible COVID-19 exposure. Southern Miss announced Friday it will postpone its Saturday game for the second consecutive weekend because of a spike in cases inside the program.
Byers said the fastest-growing group of reported cases is elementary-age children. However, Dobbs said the virus isn’t spreading in the schools themselves, but at social gatherings and other events outside of them.
Concern mounting as Election Day approaches
As Nov. 3 comes closer, Dobbs said there are some significant concerns regarding the number of people expected to turn out at the polls.
Dobbs said some protective equipment will be provided for voters 65 and older and those who are the most at risk for the virus.
“Is it perfect? No. Is it something else we can do for folks? Absolutely,” he said.
The health department is not currently allowed to fully require masks at all polling locations, but they are strongly encouraged as people make plans to vote.
“We advocate for masks indoors and we know it’s not currently allowable,” he said. “But anything that would improve and enhance the percentage of people wearing a mask indoors is something we would encourage.”
Dobbs said there is a possibility the heath department could assist in the development of outdoor voting booths to lower the risk if requested to do so.