99 chairs

This Thanksgiving, there will be at least 99 empty chairs at tables across DeSoto County because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSoto County has now reported 99 deaths and more cases than any other county since the beginning of the pandemic.

Even as there is hope of a bright future ahead now that several vaccines are showing promising results, our community is mourning. Teachers won’t return to classrooms, church pews will have empty spaces, and family members — grandparents, parents, siblings and children alike — will be missed at holiday gatherings.

If the death rates remain constant from 2019 to this year, COVID-19 will be at least the third leading cause of death in Mississippi. Since March, the coronavirus has killed over 3,700 people in the state, more than diabetes, the flu, pneumonia, suicide, homicide, Parkinson’s disease and liver disease — combined — killed in 2019.

Nearly twice as many Mississippians have died from COVID-19 than died in accidents last year.

Pastor Bartholomew Orr, who leads Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven, told The Commercial Appeal that the church has had more than one funeral per week so far this year — a 50% increase from last year.

“Families have literally had multiple deaths,” Orr recently told The Commercial Appeal, adding that he has preached four funerals in a three-day weekend. "We are encouraging people — and especially with the numbers going back up — to really practice all of the safety guidelines, to avoid big family gatherings and to know that this is a time where the most vulnerable people... sometimes just coming over to somebody's house can affect those that are most vulnerable.”

Hospitalizations are surging across the state and the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 continue to accelerate in the county. DeSoto County now leads the state in the number of cases reported since the beginning of the pandemic. The county is also reporting more new cases per day than ever before.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has been sounding the alarm about the rapid rate of virus spread in DeSoto County in recent  weeks. The driving force behind this spread is the refusal of many to comply with Gov. Reeves’ mask mandate or social distancing guidelines, according to Dobbs.

Many health care workers in our community are anxious about the future and weary from working in such an environment that can sometimes seem hopeless.

The same is true across Mississippi.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), a leader in health care in the state, announced at a press conference on Monday that it has recently been at capacity 24/7. Now, the hospital has been seeing an increase in requests to move patients from hospitals as far as Missouri to Mississippi.

“I have never questioned my job or being a nurse until this summer… because it was so defeating,” Lacey Ward, a nurse at UMMC said at the conference, adding that seeing people not following guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus makes it even more difficult for her to keep going.

Community members are not powerless to protect one another, as many experts have pointed out for months.Wearing masks, washing hands and keeping distance — for ourselves, our family, our neighbors and the health care professionals working so hard to serve — will save lives.

This year, our community is thankful for the loved ones who are safe, and we are thankful for those who are keeping them safe — whether simply wearing a mask or providing the utmost medical care to save lives.

Nesbit resident Kevin McCandles is one of those in DeSoto County that will be celebrating Thanksgiving because of local health care professionals. 

The 63-year-old retired federal express pilot was hospitalized at the Methodist LeBonheur hospital in Olive Branch with COVID-19 in late October. McCandles has diabetes alongside kidney and heart issues — the very definition of a high risk patient. 

“Odds are, I should be dead. And that's just reality. I'm one of those people with everything against me,” McCandles said. 

Andrea McGee, one of McCandles’ nurses, said he started off on a downward spiral in the hospital. 

“I was ready to pack it up,” McCandles said. 

Not long into his stay, three nurses moved him to the ICU but worked diligently to improve his oxygen levels and were able to prevent him from being put on a ventilator. 

“That's people that are dedicated, that you cannot put a price on,” McCandles said. 

During one of McCandles rougher days, when he was “having a meltdown,” McGee gave him a big hug in his hospital bed. It was moments like these to which Kevin credits his recovery. 

“You're also mentally fighting and she saw that. She knew how important it was. She stopped what she was doing and came to my rescue,” McCandles said. 

McCandles was discharged on Friday, Nov. 13 and gifted the medical team with a poster carrying a message of thanks. The poster now hangs outside the main staff entrance at the hospital.

“We spend countless hours on the clock and off the clock and worried about or invested into our patients. And so it does feel great to have the recognition for everything that we do,” McGee said. 

Though back home, McCandles is still dealing with the lasting side effects of COVID-19. “You know, it kicks your tail,” he said. He was able to walk 257 steps yesterday. It might not sound like much, but for him it was huge. More than anything, he’s just happy to be here. 

“The one thing I've learned, if there's ever a time to be thankful, it’s this year. Give (your family) a hug like there is no other hug, where you lift them off the ground. You love them and appreciate them because they are truly gifts of God.”

At least 99 Desoto County residents will be missed at Thanksgiving because of COVID-19. How did we get here?

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