A Mississippi state senator and a state representative have tested positive for COVID-19, Mississippi Today confirmed on Tuesday, prompting concerns that another Capitol virus outbreak could occur.
“We immediately contacted Dr. (Thomas) Dobbs (the state health officer) and are following protocol,” Leah Rupp Smith, a spokesperson for Senate leader Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, said Tuesday.
House Pro Tem Rep. Jason White told Mississippi Today on Tuesday that a member of the House of Representatives also tested positive. White said the members sitting near the infected member are not participating in proceedings this week to try to prevent the spread.
He said the House got advice from Dobbs before opting not to recess the legislative session.
“We are following his lead and are in constant communications with him,” White said.
Additional details about the positive tests were not immediately available. It is unclear which lawmakers tested positive.
On the same day the positive tests were confirmed, lawmakers and legislative staffers stood in line inside the Capitol to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
Officials said the Department of Health initially planned to administer vaccines to lawmakers over 65 and their spouses, but they had extra doses and opened it up to all lawmakers and legislative staffers. The state has been slow to administer vaccines to the greater public, and the few vaccine appointments available across the state are currently open to anyone over the age of 65 or those with pre-existing health conditions.
It is not clear whether the positive tests resulted in the Department of Health opting to provide the vaccine to legislators on Tuesday.
A COVID-19 outbreak occurred at the Capitol while lawmakers met during the summer of 2019. Hosemann, who presides over the Senate and contracted the virus last year, proposed starting the 2021 session in early January and taking a break until later in the year over concerns of an additional outbreak. House leadership, including Speaker Philip Gunn, who also contracted the virus last year, rejected that proposal, forcing lawmakers to conduct business as usual in Jackson this month.
“I’m concerned about my legislators going back to different parts of the state and spreading it to places that didn’t previously have it,” Hosemann said in late December. “And I’m worried about the people who work here (at the Capitol). We have several hundred people who work here every day.”
During the summer outbreak, at least 49 of the 175 members (including the lieutenant governor) had contracted the coronavirus, resulting in some members being hospitalized. In addition more than 10 staff members and legislative lobbyists also contracted the disease in the summer. Health officials attributed at least one death to the outbreak — a family member of someone who contracted the virus at the Capitol.
The Legislature has attempted to follow strict guidelines this session with most members and staff wearing masks. Committee meetings, for the most part, have been limited to the larger rooms in the state Capitol to allow for social distancing. But some lawmakers have been seen without masks, and others have held maskless meetings in small spaces.
As lawmakers contend with virus concerns, Gov. Tate Reeves and the legislative leaders have been trying to determine when and if the governor would hold a State of the State address this year. There will likely be no State of the State in a joint session in a crowded House chamber as usual, though there has been talk of holding a State of the State address outside the Capitol.
There is no requirement that a speech be provided. The state Constitution simply says “the governor shall, from time to time, give the Legislature information of the State of the State and recommend for consideration such measurers as may be deemed necessary and expedient.”