After a weeks-long resistance to issue sweeping stay-at-home orders amid climbing COVID-19 cases in Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday issued his first order requiring Mississippi residents to stay at home.
But the new order, unlike orders in 32 other states, does not have statewide ramifications. Reeves signed an executive order Tuesday requiring residents of Lauderdale County, the state’s eighth largest county by population and home to Meridian, to shelter in place. The order takes effect Tuesday night staring at 10 p.m. and lasts through April 14, and comes after a spike in confirmed cases.
Reeves said more county shelter-in-place orders are likely in coming days.
“To be clear, the fact that the first shelter-in-place is issued for Lauderdale County does not mean that they have the most number of cases, and it does not mean that they are the only place in Mississippi where there are challenges,” Reeves said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But based upon the data that is being collected at the state Department of Health, they believe and they recommended to me that we do this.”
Lauderdale County identified their first coronavirus case less than a week ago, a patient at Anderson Regional Medical Center in Meridian, and now has 35 identified cases. Before March 25, Lauderdale County and other east central Mississippi counties along the I-20 corridor looked like stark gaps in a state map otherwise starting to crowd with identified COVID-19 cases.
The biggest jump in Lauderdale County cases was between Monday and Tuesday of this week, when 12 new cases were identified, and officials expect more in the coming days.
Tuesday, health officials said the Meridian area had not ramped up testing as quickly as other areas, signaling that the lack of cases was more so a lack of testing – cases just weren’t identified quickly enough and lead to quick growth without the opportunity to isolate sick people.
As of Tuesday, the state had only identified two testing clinics in Meridian, whereas cities like Hattiesburg and Laurel, had four and three clinics, respectively. Most hospitals will also test patients, but the clinics represent more front-line community-wide testing.
State epidemiologist Paul Byers warned Tuesday that pockets of unidentified cases cause the kind of quick growth Lauderdale County experienced and, subsequently, shelter-in-place orders. “If you’re ill enough to be tested for COVID-19, you should isolate immediately,” he said, adding not to wait for the test to come back to avoid potential spread.
An exact number of tests run for the county is unknown. The state had run 4,454 tests total as of Tuesday and expects commercial labs have run about the same, totaling around 10,000 tests. The state has not been able to obtain total testing numbers from commercial labs yet, unlike most other states, but expects to obtain that number soon, health officials said Tuesday.
If the 10,000-range is accurate, Mississippi has run the 16th most tests per capita in the U.S., at 336 per 100,000 people. The higher rate of testing could partially explain the state’s higher rate of cases, which currently stands at 32 cases per 100,000 people, marking the 14th most cases across the nation as of Sunday, according to testing data aggregated by The COVID Tracking Project.
Since the first case was identified in Lauderdale County, others have exploded in the county of 74,000 residents. Cases grew at a quicker rate per capita in Lauderdale County than any other county over the past week. Hinds and DeSoto counties had a higher number of new cases, 59 and 55 respectively over the past week.
Hinds County currently has the most cases across the state at 90, followed by Desoto, 84, and Harrison, 45, which tracks with denser population in those counties. But rural areas have been hit harder considering their smaller populations. Wilkinson has the most cases per capita at 16 cases for every 10,000 residents, followed by Tunica and Tippah at 12 cases per capita each. Those three counties comprise a quarter of the known 20 COVID-caused deaths in the state.
Lauderdale has five hospitals not devoted to psychiatric care, which house 633 beds total and 51 intensive care unit beds currently, though Reeves and the state’s COVID response team are working with hospitals to expand swing-bed capacity to bolster ICU-like space. There is about one bed for every 115 Lauderdale residents currently.
Though hospitalization data has not been broken down by county, as of Tuesday 32 percent of all Mississippi cases have been hospitalized, or about 300 people. In Lauderdale County, that’s about 11 hospitalized currently, at least 3 of whom are at Anderson Regional.
The order Reeves signed on Tuesday allows Lauderdale County residents to leave their homes to buy food or go to work as long as their employer is deemed an “essential business,” which Reeves defined broadly in a controversial executive order last week. Residents may leave the house for recreational purposes, as long as they avoid crowds of 10 or more and maintain 6 feet of separation with other people.
Reeves had previously resisted calls for shelter-in-place orders, though last week he signaled the possibility of issuing more regional orders for areas with greater risk of what experts call community spread. He has said that counties with less community spread risk might not need to be completely locked down.
“Just like things are different in New York and Texas, the same is true in Pearl River County and Tishomingo County,” Reeves told Mississippi Today in a podcast interview published on Monday. “So when you think about the fact that up in Tish County… there hasn’t been one reported case in Tishomingo County at this time. So it’s unlikely to see significant community spread when we haven’t seen a case.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, governors in 32 other states had issued more stringent shelter-in-place orders than Reeves.
Pointing to criticism he’s received from national media outlets and some Democratic local elected officials in Mississippi, Reeves has said many have used politics to justify the thoughts about his leadership during the crisis.
“We know better on how to run the state of Mississippi than any national media or other figure will be able to do,” Reeves told Mississippi Today. “There’s going to be plenty of time to look back and say, ‘Was the decision made by Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo in New York the right decision? Was the decision made by Gov. Reeves in Mississippi the right decision?’”
Reeves continued: “We are taking the information and facts before us, we’re listening to our experts every step of the way, and we think we’re making the right decisions for Mississippians in both the short term and the long term.”