JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - As coronavirus cases rapidly increase in Mississippi -- with nearly 10,000 added in the last week alone -- Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday he used week-old data from early July to make decisions on whether counties should face greater restrictions.
A 3 On Your Side analysis on Friday found twenty-four counties matched the state’s criteria, a familiar refrain that Reeves repeatedly mentioned during his daily press briefing -- at least two hundred new cases overall or five hundred cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks.
“I haven’t seen your analysis, but the data that we are looking at, that we looked at last week to make that decision is actually data from July 1 to July 13,” Reeves said during a press briefing Monday. “We look at that, and then we also look at data over the last seven days.”
Reeves said his office uses other criteria as well, including date of illness onset data, presumably on the county level, which the Mississippi State Department of Health has never released to the public.
Instead, MSDH releases date of illness onset data for the state as a whole.
Reeves said they would add nine additional counties to those already restricted in the coming days, but did not name them.
Because the full range and methodology of how Mississippi chooses hot spots and greater restrictions is not known, it’s almost impossible to predict with absolute certainty which counties could be picked going forward or factcheck those already selected, meaning the public has to trust the state when it makes these choices.
One county noticeably absent from the governor’s Friday order was Lee, which was cited by State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs last week for rapid COVID-19 growth.
“We anticipated, based on those metrics, for Lee County to be included,” Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said. “Metrics are not being followed.”
Shelton said his city of more than 38,000 has already experienced loss from the devastating virus.
“We had an employee from the city of Tupelo that worked here at City Hall who passed away from COVID this weekend,” Shelton said. “She was in her 40s. This is hitting home. It’s all over the state. It’s all over the nation.”
Shelton believes a statewide mask mandate will protect more Mississippians than Reeves’ “surgical” approach, which the mayor calls a “hodgepodge” strategy.
“If you live in Tishomingo County and there’s a statewide mask mandate, you can’t help but say, ‘That’s probably because of those folks in Hancock County,‘” Reeves said. “If you put a statewide mandate in, the people in Hancock County are gonna say ‘That’s because of those folks up in Tishomingo County. They can’t possibly be talking about me.‘”
Gov. Reeves’ example implies Mississippians in neighboring counties won’t want to follow a statewide mandate because they’ll think it won’t be enforced for them.
Shelton agrees enforcement would be a hurdle, but doesn’t believe that should prohibit them from taking the steps that need to be taken.
“Enforcement’s an issue because people like Tate Reeves and Donald Trump called this a hoax and a joke and made light of COVID for months,” Shelton said. “And now we’ve got 150,000 Americans who have died, and more are gonna die. I’m proud they’re taking this seriously, but...it’s been politicized from day one.”
Right now, 29 counties are under a mask mandate -- roughly one-third.
Reeves said another reason he won’t push for a statewide one is because, in part, two-thirds of Mississippians are already under one, based on the governor’s estimation.
The governor also took issue with mayors accusing him of failing to communicate effectively during this pandemic.
“You’ve got mayors like the one in Tupelo who’s decided that he’d rather play politics in the middle of this pandemic than actually focus on doing what’s right for his constituents, and that’s certainly his prerogative,” Reeves said. “He wants to attack, attack, attack, and play the blame game. Look, there’ll be plenty of time for the blame game. There’ll be plenty of time for us to look back and say, ‘maybe we should have done this,' or ‘maybe we should have done that.’ But now is not the time.”
Shelton, interviewed before the governor’s comments, said COVID-19 doesn’t recognize city limits or county lines.
“People are going to travel from city to city, county to county, so we need those uniform safety protections,” Shelton said. “The governor is taking it serious now, which I appreciate. It took a long time to get to that point.”