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'Be brave.' Local leaders need to advocate mask use as COVID-19 surges, MS top doctor says

Gulfport Sun Herald logo Gulfport Sun Herald 12/2/2020 Isabelle Taft and Anita Lee, The Sun Herald

The state’s COVID-19 numbers are grim and likely to grow grimmer as Mississippians continue to indulge in dinner parties and soccer games where the virus spreads, but State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has a suggestion he believes would help.

Local leaders, he said, need to step up and urge their citizens to protect themselves by wearing masks and avoiding social gatherings where the disease is spreading.

“Be brave,” he said during a news conference Tuesday morning. “Talk about what works. Don’t be timid about saying it because you’re afraid of some crazy conspiracy uncle.”

Dobbs again stopped short of calling for a statewide mask mandate. Such a mandate is up to Gov. Tate Reeves. On Tuesday afternoon, Reeves added 13 counties to the mask mandate executive order that now covers 54 counties, more than half of the state.

But the Mississippi State Medical Association and other health care leaders have urged Reeves to adopt the mandate statewide.

Dr. Claude Brunson told the Sun Herald during a separate interview Tuesday morning that evidence shows state mask mandates work and the MSMA still wants one.

He’s very concerned about an increase in cases from Thanksgiving because so many people visited extending family and friends, against public health advice, coupled with an inevitable increase that’s coming because cold weather will force people indoors.

He said cases will continue to climb, followed by increased hospitalizations at already overburdened medical centers, followed by increased deaths.

“We’re expecting to see a surge on top of a surge,” Brunson said. “It’s not good for our hospitals or health workers. And it’s not good for the public.”

Mississippi set a record Tuesday for the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases: 1,410 a day compared to the previous record of 1,380 on July 26. The state now has a total of 154,411 COVID-19 cases with 3,836 deaths.

Local leaders should speak up, Dobbs says

Local leaders could help by urging people to stay home and wear masks when they must venture out.

At least on the Coast, local leaders have rarely been outspoken in urging constituents to follow Dobbs’ guidance to wear masks and avoid social gatherings. Some more vocal local officials have taken the opposite tack, urging individual responsibility and de-emphasizing the public health logic behind state guidelines and mandates.

Ocean Springs Mayor Shea Dobson, for example, has pledged to move forward with Mardi Gras celebrations unless the state shuts them down.

Dobbs said that he is not advocating extreme measures, such as a lockdown, but simple steps people can take to protect themselves and loved ones.

“Masks are just a piece of paper over your face,” Dobbs said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t spend money or do your work, right? We’ve created a false dichotomy of lockdowns or hog-wild open.”

Last week, Dobbs tweeted a graphic showing the most common type of “large gathering event” in early November was church, outpacing family gatherings and sporting events. At Tuesday’s news conference, he urged people over 65 and with chronic health conditions to avoid in-person church services.

Christmas gatherings, at church or over a dining table, also are a bad idea, he said.

“There’s nothing magic about food and there’s nothing magic about church,” he said. “It’s just a great place to get coronavirus.”

Dobbs said mask mandates empower church leaders to enforce the requirement at their services.

The state’s top doctor kept coming back to one point throughout the news conference: This really isn’t that hard.

“We haven’t had the diligence or the patience to skip volleyball games and dinner parties,” he said. “We know what the answer is. We’ve just collectively decided not to follow it.”

Hospitals ‘saturated’ with coronavirus cases

During Reeves’ news conference, state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said case numbers are now peaking above the highest summer surge numbers and are likely to grow worse. He also expects hospitalizations and deaths to climb, even though, he said, hospitals are already “saturated.”

“It’s looking like we’re heading toward a peak now that may be even larger,” Byers said.

The virus is spreading among all age groups, Dobbs and Byers said, with younger, asymptomatic carriers passing COVID-19 to older family members at greater risk of illness and death.

Byers said that two weeks ago, the last time he checked, 5,800 healthcare workers in the state had contracted COVID-19. Many of them, he said, likely caught the virus out in the community.

The state has more than 200 outbreaks in long-term care settings, 143 of them in nursing homes. In many cases, he said, employees introduced the virus in these settings.

The solution to slow the spread is simple, both doctors say, although many Mississippians seem unwilling to make the sacrifices. People are going to dinner parties where they don’t wear masks when they eat, eating out in restaurants and holding sporting events.

Mask mandate expansion

The 13 counties Reeves added to the mask mandate list Tuesday afternoon are Quitman, Jefferson, Franklin, Noxubee, Kemper, Amite, Coahoma, Sunflower, Scott, Adams, Oktibbeha, Monroe and Washington.

“Many of the counties we are adding are smaller counties and therefore they have smaller absolute numbers,” Reeves said.

The counties under a mask mandate qualify because each has 500 or more cases per 100,000 population.

Reeves said that rising case numbers could eventually lead to a mandate being imposed in every county in the state.

“We may get to the point where [in] all 82 counties… the numbers justify a mandate,” he said.

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©2020 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)

Visit The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.) at www.sunherald.com

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