Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, at a press conference at UMMC.

A top public health official said on Monday that Gov. Tate Reeves should postpone the return of public schools as Mississippi becomes one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspots and the state’s hospital capacity dwindles.

Most public schools across the state plan to resume in-person activities this week. Reeves, who is the only state official with the authority to issue a blanket order to delay the start of school, is expected to announce a decision on the matter this week.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said in an interview with Mississippi Today on Monday that reopening schools would place further strain on the state’s hospitals, which are struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing number of coronavirus patients.

“Those of us in healthcare feel like we’re watching this train wreck happen, and somehow even many of our friends are blind to it,” Woodward said of the state’s recent explosion of COVID-19 cases in a phone interview. “I think most people, when they’re thinking about reopening school and the logistics of that, are starting to understand some of that stress and strain on our healthcare system.”

Woodward continued: “In my heart, I want us to get back to school. There are a lot of children who really need to be in school for a variety of reasons. However, I don’t think we’re at a point right now where it’s the right, best and safe thing to do.”

Mississippi currently has the highest COVID-19 positivity rate in the country and the third-highest daily new case rate. COVID hospitalizations continue to rise, and the daily patient rolls nearly doubled in the past month. A recent report from George Washington University shows Mississippi is one of 11 states either at or nearing a shortage of ICU providers.

Reeves spent the weekend personally assessing reopening plans of the state’s 138 public school districts, which had to submit proposals to the state by Friday. The districts, thus far, have been given free rein to decide for themselves how and when to reopen, and most have opted to resume in-person instruction within the next week.

But last week, Reeves suggested he could delay the reopenings with a statewide mandate after reading the districts’ plans.

Reeves allowing Mississippi schools to reopen would send more than 465,000 students, more than 30,000 teachers and thousands of other school staffers back to the classrooms this months. Education advocates say already cash-strapped school districts can’t handle the demands of virus preparation and warn that students, teachers and staff will suffer. Health experts say allowing schools to reopen now will further strain the hospital system.

Woodward said that Reeves should delay the reopening of schools “until after Labor Day,” and that schools should be under strict mask mandates and have more testing capabilities when they do open.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Reeves’ top coronavirus adviser, also said in a Friday video session with the Mississippi State Medical Association that schools shouldn’t reopen until September.

“I was off,” Dobbs said in the video. “I thought maybe it would be the right time to start in August — until about a little while ago… I think it’s a good idea to delay school. There’s nothing magic about August.”

In recent days, Reeves has publicly warned of the dangers associated with children not returning to the classroom. Many parents are worried about how they’ll keep their jobs or handle childcare if their kids don’t start school on time. Parents and teachers alike have expressed concern over students’ wellbeing if they miss school and in-person interaction in a rural state where many districts lack the ability to provide adequate distance learning.

“The reopening of schools in this environment is a major challenge. I understand that,” Reeves said in a press conference on Thursday. “But to those individuals in our state who say the public health of the spread of the risk of the coronavirus is the only risk at play when making a decision about our schools are ignoring so many other risks that exist out there.”

Reeves continued: “We know that we are not going to mitigate 100% of the risk on either side of this equation. What we must do is look for innovative ways to reach what we all believe is the right outcome. And the right outcome longterm for kids is that they are in an environment that is loving and produces and provides an educational opportunity.”

As he weighs the schools decision, Reeves is also drawing scorn for not issuing a statewide mask mandate, as most other states have done, and Mississippi’s COVID statistics continue to worsen. As of Monday, Mississippians in 37 of the state’s 82 counties — representing more than half of the state’s population — were required to wear masks in public because of an executive order from Reeves.

Several medical professionals and local politicians have questioned why Reeves has ordered mask mandates for individual counties that are already seeing spikes in cases rather than being more proactive with a statewide mandate and stopping the virus spread before it begins.

In the Monday interview, Woodward reiterated that UMMC and most of the state’s largest hospitals don’t currently have the space or staffing to keep up with the state’s rising COVID hospitalizations.

“The thing I would emphasize is the fatigue of health care workers,” Woodward said. “They are frazzled, and they are worn out. There is no definite end in sight for the work they’re going to have to be doing. Now we know this pandemic is not going to go on for 10 years, but still you’re talking about months. For their stamina and their ability to continue to give everything they have, we need buy-in from the public with mask wearing and distancing. We need this to be taken seriously.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.