The Mississippi Legislature, finishing a historic stretch last week where it voted to replace the state flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its design, now faces a new challenge as members are testing positive for the coronavirus.
On Sunday, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton confirmed that he has contracted COVID-19, as did at least one other member of the House.
“Last week I was in close proximity to an individual, one of our House members who has tested positive, so I felt like I needed to go get myself tested just because I had been near that person and this morning was informed that I too have tested positive for COVID,” said Gunn, who noted he was not exhibiting any symptoms. “I am going to self quarantine for the requisite amount of time and going to do all that (state Health Officer) Dr. Dobbs has advised me to do.”
House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, also confirmed Sunday that he had tested positive. And on Friday, Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson, revealed he had tested positive. Various sources have indicated that other members of the House have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House Democratic leader, said he had heard about five members of the House have tested positive.
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s deputy chief of staff Leah Rupp Smith said “A staff member has tested positive, and is now under quarantine. Senators and staff have been notified, and we are following instructions from the state Health Officer.”
The revelations on Sunday come one day after state Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said during a Mississippi State Medical Association conference this weekend that his agency was monitoring the Legislature for a possible outbreak.
“Dr. Dobbs spoke remotely via Zoom to the Mississippi State Medical Association physicians and indicated MSDH is investigating a possible contact within the Mississippi Legislature,” said Dr. Jennifer Bryan, chair of the MSMA board of trustees. “Our legislators visit within their communities a significant amount and this is not entirely unexpected. We hope that this will be a limited situation, but the investigation is ongoing.”
Mississippi Department of Health spokesperson Liz Sharlot said “We are aware of ill and positive cases among House members. I don’t have any numbers, we are in the midst of investigating and working in conjunction with House leadership.”
The Legislature finished most of its regular work for the 2020 session on Thursday, but did not pass a budget for the Department of Marine Resources, which provides regulatory and law enforcement services on the Gulf Coast. With a new budget year starting on July 1, the agency with no budget has been confined to performing basic services.
The Legislature was expected to return during the coming week to try to reach an agreement on the department’s budget. With the coronavirus outbreak, questions remain about how the department’s budget will be resolved.
In the midst of the pandemic, the Legislature took a long recess in March and when it re-convened in May and June, there were new safety precautions such as social distancing in each chamber and temperature checks before entering the Capitol. But in recent days many of those precautions were not enforced and fewer members have been wearing masks.
In late March, a Capitol Police officer reportedly tested positive for coronavirus while the Legislature was on hiatus because of the pandemic. Legislative leaders also confirmed that an employee who occasionally works at the state Capitol tested positive for COVID-19.
This news follows another record-setting week for coronavirus in Mississippi. The three days before the July 4th holiday saw 2,774 new cases total. Despite a sharp decline in daily cases reported Sunday — likely reflective of holiday reporting delays — the weekly COVID-19 positive rate and rolling average new cases have steadily climbed to record peaks. However, total tests have not kept pace with records set in May.
Hospitalization rates have continued to peak as well, worrying health officials who say intensive care units are filling up as continually rising cases risk overwhelming the health care system. COVID-19 hospitalizations grew by one-third in seven days and new daily cases have more than doubled in the last two weeks.
Erica Hensley contributed to this report.