Thomas Dobbs

Dr. Thomas Dobbs speaking to a group of reporters during a visit to DeSoto County.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs debunked several claims made by Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite in a Facebook post about COVID-19 in DeSoto County. 

Dobbs criticized Musselwhite’s downplaying of the impact of the virus in DeSoto County during a Mississippi State Department of Health press conference Tuesday. 

Musselwhite drew attention with a lengthy Facebook post last week saying that Gov. Tate Reeves and Dr. Dobbs were misleading the public in their statements about the county’s rapid virus spread. 

Muselwhite criticized Dobbs for saying last week that he “would not leave his house if he lived in DeSoto County” and that county hospitals have capacity problems.

Dobbs doubled down on his messaging about the severity of the pandemic in DeSoto County before countering several false claims made by Musselwhite.

“Let me just say something: we're not going to hold any punches,” Dobbs said. “If there's a lot of cases and people are dying, then we're going to say it to protect the public. DeSoto County has a huge number of cases. They have almost 200 more cases per week than any other county in the state of Mississippi. It's a place that people need to be watching, and they need to be careful. So no regrets about that.”

DeSoto County currently has three ICU beds available in its hospitals, according to the state department of health. The Methodist-LeBonheur Hospital system, which serves DeSoto County and is the second largest hospital network in the Memphis area, has seven ICU beds available, with 157 ICU beds occupied across its network. At the time of publication, 92 county residents have died from COVID-19, according to the state department of health.

Dr. Shailesh Patel, chief medical officer of Methodist-Olive Branch, said that, even as the hospital system has prepared for the worst case scenario, the recent surge in new cases and hospitalizations was concerning — especially as the holiday season approaches.

“It is definitely stretching us thin,” Dr. Patel said. “We are afraid of what could happen, absolutely.”

In his Facebook post, Musselwhite claimed that many of the positive tests recorded in the county were not from DeSoto County residents, but instead from neighboring Shelby County. He also said that the reason for the county’s higher positive test rates are because “viruses do not recognize city, county, or state boundaries” and that the county’s population totals actually include those of Shelby County as well. 

Dobbs responded to this in the press conference, saying: “That is absolutely not true, because we only count people who live in Mississippi. So we can debunk that one immediately.”

Musselwhite said COVID-19 is dangerous for “some of our people” while also emphasizing that “99.93% of all Americans, 99.90% of all Mississippians, and 99.95% of all DeSoto Countians have survived this virus.”

When citing these statistics, Musselwhite is referring to the entire population, not those who have contracted the virus. Dobbs took issue with Musselwhite’s framing of the numbers. 

“There's a lot to unpack in that,” Dobbs said. “First off, it's far more deadly than that. Let's not try to minimize the severity of it, alright? 99.9% 's probably about right for healthy young folks, but not for older folks (who have contracted the virus). So the death rate gets very high. If you get over 65, it gets about 13%, something like that. So we’ve got to understand that it can be much worse.”

Musselwhite has shared similar ideas about the virus throughout the pandemic, criticizing mask mandates in May, calling them “liberties being restrained for this length of time.”

Throughout the pandemic, Musselwhite has insisted that he wants people to take the virus seriously, including wearing masks.

With the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine on track to begin in Mississippi in December, Dobbs warned county and state against lowering their guards during the holiday season, with many health care officials worrying that family gatherings will compound the surge in cases seen nationwide. 

“So please, if you live in DeSoto County or anywhere in Mississippi, we want you to be very careful and understand the risks that you're undertaking,” Dobbs said. “We have a vaccine around the corner. We have a light at the end of the tunnel. And now's not the time to throw caution to the wind. Now it's time for us to be as conscientious as ever to turn back this pandemic so that we can have a brighter future in months ahead.”

Inside hospitals in the county, the increased stress is taking a toll.

“I think we, emotionally, are drained,” Dr. Patel said. “When we do lose patients, it’s emotionally very taxing for us, very hard for us to keep going, can be very hard for us to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Dr. Patel is imploring county residents to continue taking the virus seriously by wearing a mask, keeping up hand hygiene and social distancing — “if not for yourself, for others,” he said.

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