Gov. Tate Reeves sat down with Mississippi Today on Friday, March 27, for a podcast interview about his response to the coronavirus outbreak.
In the 45-minute interview, Reeves answered questions about decisions he’s made as the virus has spread in Mississippi, how prepared the state of Mississippi is for a “worst case scenario,” how he believes politics has played into criticism he’s received and whether the health care crisis has changed his perspective on Medicaid expansion.
Below is a complete transcript of the interview. Stream the podcast episode here or on your preferred podcast app.
Mississippi Today: We’re sitting in the Governor’s Mansion in a conference room you’ve actually mentioned a couple times the past week or so. When you were state treasurer, the previous biggest storm to hit Mississippi before this current one, I guess you could say, was Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. You’ve pointed out the irony how things have changed for you 15 years later. You’re not even three months into your governorship yet, and you’ve been presented with this challenge. What has all of this been like for you the past few weeks?
Gov. Tate Reeves: Well it’s been challenging. There’s no question about that. This is a global pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in this country since over 100 years ago. There’s virtually no one alive in America who saw what we went through in the late teens last century. It’s certainly been a challenge. It has been ironic because when Hurricane Katrina hit, obviously we were housed at that time not far from here, a few blocks towards the Mississippi State Capitol. We lost power. While we had to do a number of things to make sure our machines were functioning properly since we were in charge of the state’s finances at the time, we had to take extreme measures to make sure we were paying our debt services and things such as that.
I did spend a good bit of time in this conference room working with Gov. (Haley) Barbour’s staff, preparing them and working with them on the special session that was ultimately called to deal with Hurricane Katrina. You’ve got to remember when Katrina hit, it was not only the largest natural disaster in American history, it was five times larger than what had previously been the largest natural disaster in American history, at least in terms of total dollar amount of losses. We’ve had others since then that have surpassed that, but it was something that we often said you can’t plan for something that’s five times larger than anything that’s happened. It’s beyond your ability to comprehend or imagine. This particular event is very similar to that in that it’s very complicated. Fortunately, (State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs) and his team at the State Department of Health, our Emergency Management Agency personnel, our state of Mississippi, we had a pandemic plan in place. It was 440 pages long, but it was a pandemic plan that contemplated many of these things. We’ve tried to utilize that plan. Quite frankly, as you look at the measures that we have taken to date, we’ve actually been much more aggressive than that plan ever contemplated. But we also know that we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve got more work to do, and the number of cases are probably going to rise, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better.
Mississippi Today: There’s been a lot of debate both here and the federal level about when officials knew just how bad this could be for our country. Specifically in Mississippi, when did you realize how bad this could be for this state?
Tate Reeves: I think as you look back at history, Mississippi didn’t get our first case until 15 days ago. I think it’s fair to say that most of us did not anticipate that we would be moving this quickly, although we have about 500 cases now. There are approximately 100,000 cases in the U.S. today. So Mississippi currently has about 1 percent of the American population, and about one-half of 1 percent of the total cases. That’s not necessarily going to continue. What we are seeing is the cycle is such that it is different in various states, and it’s different in various countries. So I think and hope and pray that New York is a little further advanced in their cycle, and other states, particularly more rural areas, a little bit less so.
But I’ll also tell you that I think the corrective measures that we started to take were much earlier, overall, in Mississippi’s cycle than many other states took, relative to when they started taking these measures in their cycle. So again, I’m not sure that anybody today knows how bad it can and will get in Mississippi. We all have models. We’re looking at the data and looking at the worst case scenario and trying to plan for that. That’s what I spent my entire day doing today. But also understanding that we always approach these things trying to prepare for the worst, praying for the best and expect somewhere in between. That’s most likely where we’ll end up.
Mississippi Today: You mentioned the first case — the first confirmed case — was 15 days ago. You were actually overseas in Europe when that first case was confirmed. That was a family trip that I know had been planned weeks in advance, but I’m curious: Was there ever a point in the planning of that trip, as you were seeing how this was playing out, that you considered not going? Or maybe once you got there, coming back early? And then from there, what were some of the steps you’ve taken to manage this crisis?
Tate Reeves: We actually had our first conversation about the potential pandemic sometime in February. I don’t remember the exact date. We also signed an order and activated our task force with Dr. Dobbs as the leader before I left to go to Europe. It was a family trip. With 2019 having been an election year, some of us in my family — a lot of us in my family — worked pretty hard throughout last year and didn’t do any family trips or vacations. We really didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time together. My daughter is an up-and-coming soccer player. She made a national team. She had an opportunity to travel with some friends to Europe to play soccer, and we wanted to afford her that opportunity. When we left, I will tell you that in the country of Spain, there were less than 500 cases in Spain at the time.
While we were there, obviously, was about the time (cases in) Italy blew up, and that was also about the time that we started seeing some additional cases in the country of Spain, which since that time has grown considerably. I got a call from my staff and Dr. Dobbs, and approximately 24 hours later, I was on a plane back to the United States after out first case was confirmed. We worked hard to get back and have literally made the right decision to self-isolate here on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion. I was talking to the mayor of the city of Jackson the other night and I said, “Look, I never really ever envisioned spending 14 straight days in one square block of downtown Jackson.” Now if you’re going to spend 14 days on any square block of downtown Jackson, this is probably the one to do it. But no doubt that we really chose to self-isolate for a number of reasons. One, it’s the right thing to do, but also we wanted to utilize that to express to people in Mississippi the seriousness of what’s coming. And obviously that was approximately 15 days ago now, a little over 14, since we returned home, and we’ve seen just in the last five or six days an increase in the number of daily cases. And, by the way, it’s my view that when you start comparing numbers from state to state, you have to have knowledge of how many tests various states are running.