Mississippi recently hit a positive COVID-19 milestone, touted by Gov. Tate Reeves and other state officials in recent days: For the first time since mid-July, the rolling average for new daily cases fell below 1,000.

But as both the daily number of new cases and weekly average number of cases continue to fall, the average number of tests administered has also fallen to a three-month low, meaning Mississippi could be failing to identify and isolate active cases.

On Monday, the state reported its lowest number of daily cases in over a month, at 276. Weekend reporting tends to reflect lower numbers because of reporting lags from the previous week. But even for weekend numbers, Monday’s daily case report was low. Monday case numbers from the last three weeks showed 476 last week and previously 572 and 653, respectively.

But on Tuesday, numbers ticked back up to 795 new cases. Though the new cases are still above average for the last week, they’re the lowest Tuesday since late June.

State officials point to masking and social distancing as successfully driving case numbers down, but they also caution Mississippians to not let their guard down. Praising the declining case trends, Reeves says the concerted effort is paying off.

“This didn’t just happen,” Reeves said. “The virus spreads until we can do the little things to mitigate further spread, and that’s what happening in Mississippi.”

But as the number of new cases continues to decrease, statewide COVID-19 testing has also decreased over the same time to its lowest daily average since mid-May. Though the average daily number of tests administered ticked up slightly Monday to just over 3,000, that number was at a three-month low as of Sunday. A month ago, as daily new cases were heading toward their peak, Mississippi averaged 6,000 daily tests.

As both new cases and new tests decrease, the state’s net positivity rate remains high — still the highest in the nation using the last week’s worth of total positive tests out of all tests, currently averaging 22%. Mississippi also still has the fourth-most daily new cases per capita, behind Georgia, Florida and Texas. 

Reeves disputes the test positivity rate and says not all clinics report all tests, which can falsely inflate the test positivity rate. Using the White House Coronavirus Task Force methodology, which analyzes a test positivity rate based on a consistent number of clinics that reliably report both negative and positive test results, showed previous weeks between 13 and 15%.

This week’s update from the White House task force showed a new positivity rate of 12% for Mississippi, according to Reeves’ spokesperson. Though they only reflect about a quarter of tests across the state, as of Monday the state health department’s and University of Mississippi Medical Center’s in-house labs show weekly test positivity rates of about 11 and 15% respectively, more aligned with the White House’s previous reports.

“Test positivity, when taken in context with all the other data we get, it is an important number, but when you take it and say this is all that matters, it is a flawed approach — test positivity matters in context with all the other data points.” Reeves said Monday.

The “lagging indicators” that show delayed results of previous weeks’ cases are still high in Mississippi. The state’s hospital system is one of the most strained in the U.S. and new deaths per capita are only matched by Florida. Looking at deaths across the pandemic, Mississippi is ranked eighth for most deaths per capita overall — mostly behind states that saw early spikes in deaths due to quick case surges, like New Jersey and New York, that have plateaued since, compared to Mississippi’s deaths that have only recently spiked.

Across the nation, COVID-19 is now the third-leading cause of death, despite only eight months of U.S. activity. In Mississippi, long-term care residents once dominated deaths, accounting for a disproportionate share of more than half of all deaths in the spring — they now account just just over 40% of all deaths and just one-quarter over the last month.

Though overall COVID-19 hospitalizations — confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients — hit their lowest point in a month Sunday, and intensive care units saw their lowest COVID use in the past three weeks, the state’s health care system is still stretched too thin, warned State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs Monday.

Using the state health departments new hospitalization tracker, the state’s high-level COVID care centers are particularly stressed. Of the 16 hospitals across the state designated as the highest level of COVID care (levels 1 and 2), their combined 555 ICU beds are 90% full, about one-third of which house COVID patients, as of Sunday. Across the state, 903 ICU beds are 83% full with the same proportion of COVID patients. Pre-COVID, the state’s ICU capacity ran about two-thirds full on average.

As of Sunday, Jackson had two ICU beds available.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.