COVID hits hard in rural Mississippi after big county fair

US & World News

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A community in rural east central Mississippi is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, two weeks after it hosted the Neshoba County Fair that brought thousands of people who lived in cabins, attended shoulder-to-shoulder outdoor concerts and horseraces, and listened to political speeches — including one by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who decried federal guidance on mask-wearing as “foolish.”

Frustrated by rising COVID-19 infections, the chief executive officer of the 25-bed Neshoba General Hospital posted a message on social media this week, challenging Reeves to step up and show leadership.

“@tatereeves hospitals and healthcare workers need you to help us. Where are you?” Lee McCall wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “We are overwhelmed with the surge of Covid and understaffed to safely care for our patients. Our incredible staff are holding it together but we are all at our breaking point.”

This week alone, Mississippi has broken its single-day record of new COVID-19 cases three times, with more than 3,000 cases reported Tuesday, more than 4,000 Thursday and more than 5,000 Friday. The state on Thursday broke its records for patients hospitalized and patients in ICUs with COVID-19; the previous records were in January, before vaccinations were widely available.

Reeves posted Wednesday on Twitter: “In spite of the angry rhetoric coming from so many, our emergency management team is doing what it does – we are calmly dealing with an ever-changing environment to meet the needs of Mississippi.”

It wasn’t clear whether the governor was responding directly to McCall or to the many other critics who have said Reeves has done too little as Mississippi experiences a dramatic increase in virus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Reeves made several trips out of state in recent weeks as virus cases were expanding in Mississippi, including to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Colorado, a local Republican event in Orange County, Florida, and a basketball tournament for one of his daughters in Orlando.

Until the last couple of days, Reeves had made few public statements about the coronavirus in recent weeks. In his July 29 speech to a conservative crowd at the Neshoba County Fair, Reeves said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave “foolish” and “harmful” advice when it told people to resume wearing masks indoors, even if vaccinated.

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

As of Friday, Neshoba County had the highest per-capita COVID-19 caseload in Mississippi and the 55th highest among all counties in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 case tracker.

Neshoba General is not alone in the struggle with coronavirus cases as the delta variant has proliferated in Mississippi since early July.

Health officials say few intensive care beds are available anywhere in Mississippi. The state on Friday opened an air-conditioned tent as a field hospital in a parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and it is staffed by health care workers sent in by the federal government. COVID-19 patients can be transferred there from around the state.

Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. — 36% in the state, compared to 50% for the nation. Reeves himself got vaccinated on camera early this year. While he has said he thinks the COVID-19 vaccines are effective and he credits former President Donald Trump for their speedy development, Reeves also said at the fair that he defends people who choose not to get vaccinated.

The Neshoba County Fair attracts thousands of people, with extended groups of friends and relatives staying in colorful cabins and visiting on front porches in the summer heat, sometimes stepping inside for air-conditioned relief. While many at the fair are from Neshoba County, large numbers of people come in from other places.

McCall told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that he believes the fair “was a contributing factor” in Neshoba County’s sharp increase in virus cases.

McCall said 30 of his employees are out sick with the virus this week, and those able to work are tired and stressed.

Neshoba General owns an ambulance service. McCall said the service transferred a COVID-19 patient from a neighboring medical facility to a larger hospital, and the ambulance had to wait 12 hours, with the patient on board, while the crowded hospital did all it needed to admit the patient.

“It’s a real problem,” McCall said. “What happens if there’s another emergency?”

Asked about his tweet at the governor, McCall said Reeves did not speak to hospital leaders when he was in Neshoba County for the fair. McCall himself is not a physician; he has a business background and a master’s degree in public health. He said he listens to medical professionals for guidance on handling the pandemic.

“I have no political agenda whatsoever,” McCall said of his tweet. “I’m trying to help our community. I’m trying to help be an advocate for all of us.”

Reeves’s recent approach of saying little about the virus is a change from early in the pandemic last year, when he held news conferences that were carried live on his Facebook page where the public could watch. He has a news conference scheduled Friday in Jackson.

Reeves has made clear that he does not intend to set a mask mandate for the new school year, leaving some local school boards in a tug-of-war between some parents who say they won’t feel their children are safe without one and others who say mask mandates amount to tyranny.

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