As COVID-19 rates continue to set new records and health experts issue dire warnings about dwindling hospital bed space to accommodate patients with the virus, the chief executive officer of one of Mississippi’s largest hospitals personally hosted an in-person fundraiser Wednesday night for Gov. Tate Reeves.

Kent Nicaud, CEO of Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, hosted the fundraiser on Wednesday evening at his home in Pass Christian. In a phone interview with Mississippi Today on Thursday, Nicaud said he and attendees of the fundraiser were “very conscious of all the social distancing.”

“This was a very small group of people, and the reason it was at my home was because of the ability to keep everyone separate,” Nicaud said, pointing out that his home is 11,000 square feet. “There were probably never more than 21, 22 people there at one time. This was an event that I felt was meeting safety criteria, and the governor was already in town for a tourism commission and chamber of commerce. This was an opportunity for people to talk to (Reeves) about specific things. We did it safely.”

An executive order Reeves issued in November mandates that group gatherings in Harrison County, where Nicaud’s home is located, exceed no more than 10 people in a single indoor space and no more than 50 in an outdoor space. Nicaud said that guests of the fundraiser were spread out both indoors and outdoors on multiple floors of his home.

It is unclear whether more than 10 people gathered indoors at any point during the event, which included wait staff and bartenders in addition to the guests. Nicaud reiterated “there was plenty of distance” and that everyone wore masks.

“Between what Kent (Nicaud) brought and the governor brought, we could’ve all taken a bath in hand sanitizer,” said Frank Bordeaux, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, who attended the fundraiser.

Even with the protocols in place, the fundraiser directly counters guidance issued by health experts as Mississippi has seen record COVID-19 numbers almost every day this week.

After a record of 2,457 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Wednesday, the current seven-day case average is now far past Mississippi’s summer peak, making this the worst point of the pandemic to date.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who oversees the Mississippi State Department of Health, specifically advised Mississippians to avoid “social events or parties” on the morning of the fundraiser.

“All residents of Mississippi should avoid any social gathering that includes individuals outside of the nuclear family or household,” Dobbs wrote on Wednesday. “MSDH recommends that Mississippians only participate in work, school or other absolutely essential activities.”

Health experts and even leaders of large hospitals in the state have recently issued bleak warnings of the state’s worsening COVID-19 peak period, specifically citing a sharp decline in bed space for virus patients.

“As of 6:46 am today, UMMC’s bed status is -31 beds, which means that 31 people are admitted but waiting for a bed to become available. Who will be #32 or #33 or #34?” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the state’s only academic health center and largest hospital, tweeted on Wednesday. “Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and many others are doing their part. It will be a long time before they recover from the trauma they are living.”

Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, which Nicaud oversees, had just five available beds on the day of the fundraiser, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health, and just one available ICU bed.

When asked if the leader of a hospital should host an in-person event during the recent spike in cases, Nicaud said: “We’ve got to be responsible for our safety individually.”

“I do believe that putting people at risk is a problem, and I do not feel that happened at all,” he said. “If I didn’t feel like we could’ve accomplished the safety, we wouldn’t have had (the fundraiser). There’s not a mandate to quarantine. I think everyone has to find their own comfort zone. I think that’s going to be our new normal.”

Nicaud, who became CEO of Memorial Hospital in 2018, is a longtime political ally of Reeves, recently serving on the governor’s campaign finance committee and giving at least $30,000 to the governor’s 2019 campaign. Reeves also appointed him to the Mississippi Coronavirus Task Force.

Reeves has downplayed the severity of the quickly spreading virus in recent days, saying last week he wasn’t going to cave to pressure from “so-called experts” calling for a statewide mask mandate. Those calling for such an order last week included leaders of the Mississippi Hospital Association, Dobbs and Woodward.

Before the fundraiser on Wednesday night, Reeves and dozens of people attended a conference he organized – the 2020 Governor’s Conference on Tourism – at the IP casino ballroom in Biloxi.

When asked for comment on whether the fundraiser and the conference were conducted safely, Reeves’ deputy chief of staff Parker Briden said: “The (fundraiser) event with health care professionals and the tourism conference were conducted with a focus on safety — with masks and social distancing.”

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.