The mayor of Tupelo, Mississippi, can’t find just one thing to blame for a resurgent coronavirus ravaging his state these days.
But he’s clear that it starts at the top.
To Jason Shelton, the approach taken by President Donald Trump, and the politicizing of the pandemic, is where the problem began. Then it trickled down to the president’s followers, like the state’s GOP governor, who Shelton described as having emulated Trump’s behavior and words toward COVID-19 during the public health crisis.
“What has been created is a mindset of a large segment of the population that COVID is not real, that it isn’t serious,” said Shelton, a Democrat. “There’s the far-out conspiracy theorists that think this whole thing’s an effort to hurt President Trump. I mean, just really outlandish conspiracy theories floating around, which is hampering the ability of all levels of government to respond to COVID-19.”
And now his home state of Mississippi, like others across the country is facing the potential consequences.
Shelton is among those in the state who have continued to show concern over the statewide handling of the pandemic, which has seen Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves mix in severe warnings about the coronavirus with loosened statewide rules in recent weeks that came before the state’s recent spike in cases.
Those issues culminated Wednesday in Reeves announcing he was pausing the state’s reopening and emphasizing “this is not a hoax,” as the state considers next steps. The state needs “more cooperation, not more mandates,” Reeves said.
“Additional orders are useless if people will not follow what we have in place now,” Reeves told reporters during a press briefing. “And you and I both know that is the reality on the ground.”
With the coronavirus ripping through the South, local officials in Mississippi have been anxiously watching the state’s COVID-19 numbers and bemoaning the social and political climate they find themselves in over three months into the public health crisis overhauling life in the southern GOP stronghold.
The state saw a major spike last week, with the Mississippi Health Department reporting more than 1,000 new cases in a single day, though counts in the days since have been lower but still caused worry among those in the state.
The grim picture caused state officials to sound dire alarm bells, with Reeves posting on social media last Friday that Mississippi is “still at risk of overwhelming our hospital system if trends continue.” The state’s also seen patients hospitalized with confirmed infections rising in recent days to new highs, according to health department data.
“The risk of overwhelming the hospitals is very real and acute for us,” said Dr. Alan Jones, assistant vice chancellor for clinical affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who described the situation in the state as “extremely concerning.”
The positive cases the state has seen over the last week suggests that within the next week to 10 days, Jones said, the state is going to see a spike in hospitalizations.
“I don’t feel confident that our state hospital system is prepared to deal with a significant increase in the number of cases that we’re trying to deal with now, with all the other types of problems we’re trying to deal with that are non-COVID,” Jones told The Daily Beast.
The governor originally issued an executive order that took effect on June 1 opening all businesses in the state, though with some capacity limitations and restrictions on group gatherings, according to the order.
Last Thursday he took to Facebook Live to express concern over the state setting a one day record with 1,092 new cases, decrying young people “throwing parties” and “flagrantly ignoring the rules,” as he pleaded with people in the state to wear a mask. The numbers, he noted, were not because of increased testing.
“They’re not because the rules are too loose,” Reeves said. “It’s because people aren’t following the looser rules that we now have in effect.”
A day after the record new daily case high, Reeves noted on Facebook that while the numbers had gotten better “they are not back under control.” The state reported 550 new cases when it released data on Friday, but by the following week the daily number was up to 653. An executive order signed by the governor last Friday extended the state’s “safe return” COVID measures until July 6.
Mississippi was also among a new set of eight states from which people coming to New York will have to quarantine for 14 days, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday, with a statement from his office citing “significant community spread,” in those areas.
At the same time, Dr. J. Clay Hays, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, described himself as “guarded” when it comes to the state’s coronavirus situation. But he didn’t paint as gloomy a picture as Jones, saying Mississippi is not as challenged as other states like Louisiana.
“We’re not in dire straits, but I think that we have a lot of concern,” Hays said.
Back in late March during the early days of the pandemic, Reeves resisted a statewide stay-at-home order as politics became intertwined in the state’s response to the virus. At one point, he told the public “if you feel that a statewide lockdown should be occurring, then you should put yourself on individual lockdown.”
Soon after that, an executive order from the governor sparked confusion and concern because some local leaders believed that Reeves was hampering their abilities to direct more aggressive public health measures to contain the coronavirus. Reeves later said the order was meant to be a “floor statewide” for local authorities to follow.
The approach from the governor caused Shelton to slam the governor at the time for “creating mass confusion and panic across the state.” While the governor did eventually sign a statewide shelter in place order on April 1, it’s reopening this month has become spoiled by the kind of rise in cases that is also plaguing other states like Florida.
Tupelo currently has a mandatory mask order in businesses and retail stores, Shelton said. A similar move has also been made in the city of Jackson, according to the city’s website, with face coverings now largely required in public due to the surge in cases.
And in Moss Point, the city hall had opened its doors to the public in mid-May. Mayor Mario King has now shut that down over rising coronavirus concerns, saying that he’s seen entire families in his community come down with the virus.
“I think that people have a lack of fear surrounding COVID-19 at this point,” said King, who considers himself an independent, later describing there being “no sense of urgency that is created surrounding COVID in the state of Mississippi.”
While some Mississippi mayors have continued to question the governor’s approach to the virus in recent days, the mayor of Hernando, Tom Ferguson, was more warm to his fellow Republican. People in his city have been supportive of the state’s reopening trajectory, he said earlier this week before Reeves paused the state’s reopening.
“You’re only going to keep people at home so long, and they were ready to get out and do something,” Ferguson said.
For others in Mississippi, anxiety over the path the virus has taken the state on is clear. Given its smaller size, the high number of people impacted by the virus in Philadelphia, Mississippi and the county it’s included in continue to worry Mayor James Andrew Young.
Looking toward the Fourth of July weekend, the Democrat is expecting another spike in the coming weeks “simply because a lot of people are still not taking it (as) serious as they should be.”
“As a nation, I don’t think we have taken this thing as serious as we should,” Young said. “And I think our numbers are really way out of a line for (the) educated society that we are.”