COVID hits hard in rural Mississippi after big county fair

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaking at Neshoba County Fair. Photo Date: July 29, 2021.

A rural county in Mississippi is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, two weeks after it hosted a fair that brought thousands of visitors.

Posted: Aug 13, 2021 3:06 PM

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.


Neshoba County Fair, Photo Date: July 29, 2021

“@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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 512632

Reported Deaths: 10262
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34853555
DeSoto33162432
Hinds32556641
Jackson24830389
Rankin22442402
Lee16238242
Madison14874283
Jones14086247
Forrest13741259
Lauderdale12249324
Lowndes11286193
Lamar10644140
Pearl River9707244
Lafayette8827143
Hancock7835132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7204138
Monroe6989179
Pontotoc6970109
Warren6849178
Panola6746134
Neshoba6726210
Marshall6653141
Bolivar6440151
Union633897
Pike5924156
Alcorn5862107
Lincoln5525136
George510180
Prentiss500884
Tippah490282
Itawamba4829107
Scott477499
Adams4766125
Tate4748116
Leflore4723144
Copiah455895
Yazoo455591
Simpson4543117
Wayne442772
Covington432895
Sunflower4299106
Marion4265112
Coahoma4227109
Leake413790
Newton395581
Tishomingo381793
Grenada3775109
Stone365666
Jasper340166
Attala337790
Winston317792
Chickasaw313367
Clay311878
Clarke301195
Calhoun284449
Holmes271289
Smith268952
Yalobusha243747
Tallahatchie231453
Greene224749
Walthall221366
Lawrence217840
Perry213356
Amite209557
Webster205148
Noxubee188642
Montgomery181557
Carroll174441
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152639
Kemper144941
Choctaw136527
Claiborne134238
Humphreys131139
Franklin124929
Quitman107528
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96834
Sharkey65121
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 844594

Reported Deaths: 16115
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1160612006
Mobile741651379
Madison53255732
Shelby38313368
Baldwin38061589
Tuscaloosa35996641
Montgomery34473781
Lee25541263
Calhoun22582518
Morgan22441406
Etowah20009517
Marshall18771316
Houston17723425
St. Clair16863358
Limestone16123218
Cullman16032303
Elmore15902294
Lauderdale14945306
Talladega14186299
DeKalb12957269
Walker12011380
Blount10700192
Autauga10512157
Jackson10151194
Coffee9412192
Colbert9325208
Dale9013191
Tallapoosa7248201
Russell707465
Chilton7015170
Escambia6951143
Covington6926195
Franklin6337108
Chambers5778142
Marion5400130
Dallas5283209
Pike5114109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4777110
Geneva4640136
Bibb434094
Barbour369180
Butler3433100
Marengo342393
Monroe336666
Randolph334067
Pickens333188
Fayette329885
Henry320566
Hale317989
Cherokee316963
Crenshaw260477
Washington256952
Cleburne254360
Lamar251253
Clay250869
Macon244764
Conecuh192762
Coosa184647
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152545
Perry141840
Sumter139041
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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