State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, during a visit to the DeSoto County Health Department on Wednesday, warned of another statewide surge in coronavirus cases because of the abandonment of social distancing guidelines and mask wearing.
“DeSoto County is an area that has a heavy burden of coronavirus and has throughout the entire pandemic,” Dobbs said. “We’ve got a long way to go with this. The vaccine’s not going to be here for a little bit. Let's be patient with coronavirus.”
For the majority of the pandemic, DeSoto County has maintained the second-highest caseload among Mississippi counties. Last week, DeSoto County had the highest number of new cases statewide. Dobbs said the county’s 9% test positivity rate is alarming and indicates a significant amount of transmission.
Dobbs and other health officials are worried that the state will see a resurgence in transmission like the one seen over the summer. He encouraged people to continue practicing social distancing and to wear face masks, even though they are no longer mandated.
On Sept. 30, Gov. Tate Reeves made Mississippi the first state to rescind its mask mandate. They are still in effect in 33 states. Some municipalities across the state are still under locally imposed mask mandates; that is not the case in DeSoto County.
Dobbs was disappointed in the immediate decline in Mississippians wearing masks after the mandate was lifted. He expected the high number of cases during the summer months to lead people to buy into preventative measures, he said.
Though the number of new daily cases in DeSoto County has dropped dramatically since the summer months, Dobbs still emphasized that more improvement is still possible.
“The sad part of this tale is it's just not that hard to beat back. But for some reason, this mask thing has got people sort of twisted in knots,” Dobbs said. “And it's just a simple, easy, effective, proven way to prevent transmission or acquisition of coronavirus.”
Dobbs said that he would not have advised Reeves to lift the mask mandate, but would not criticize the decision, either.
“We advise everyone to wear a mask. Whatever is the most effective way to achieve that goal collectively is what we want,” Dobbs said.
The way that Mississippi’s public schools have handled the return to in-person instruction is something Dobbs praised. He noted that most cases in schools have been isolated before they could become super spreader events. Still, the several hundred cases in schools have put more than 6,800 students in quarantine since the beginning of the semester.
DeSoto County Schools — the largest school district in the state — has seen relatively low case numbers since the fall semester started. After three weeks of steady decrease in new COVID-19 cases, the district saw a slight increase in new cases in the sixth week of school along with a decrease in new quarantines.
“We want to keep our kids in schools, and to keep our kids in schools, we need to keep the community transmission low,” Dobbs said.
Dobbs also noted that most of the virus spread in schools has been the result of extracurricular activities like sports, which include more movement and contact between crowds than the static environment of a classroom.
“I think it's so important for us to make sure we prioritize the educational part,” Dobbs said. “I know that in Mississippi, we really pride ourselves on athletics, but that's also one of our bigger vulnerabilities.”