State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, right, listens as Republican Gov. Tate Reeves lessens a number of social and business restrictions from previous executive orders dealing with the early days of COVID-19, during his daily update on May 4, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Gov. Tate Reeves and State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the two most public faces in Mississippi’s fight to curtail COVID-19, both have touted their cooperative working relationship during their countless joint news conferences on the coronavirus.

While they remained cordial on Friday in their first joint news conference in months, make no mistake about it: There were some significant differences in their messaging as COVID-19 cases surge to record numbers and as federal employees, funds and resources are being brought in to try to ensure the state’s health care system does not collapse.

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Most of those differences centered around wearing — or not wearing — masks to slow the spread of the virus.

Reeves, the Republican governor, said that there is not much reason for people who are vaccinated to wear masks.

“When you’re looking at trying to get additional people vaccinated, telling them, ‘Yeah, you should get vaccinated, but you are still going to have to do all the same things,’ it tends to curb vaccinations,” Reeves said during Friday’s 90-minute news conference in his office in the Sillers office building. “There should be some reward for having people get vaccinated.”

Dobbs, a veteran physician, said there are multiple reasons for a vaccinated person to wear a mask in certain situations. The physician gave the example of a mother and son he tested. The son, who had not been vaccinated, was symptomatic and tested positive for COVID-19. Dobbs said the mother, who had been vaccinated, had no symptoms. She felt fine.

But he said the mother had “one of the highest viral loads I had seen. Totally asymptomatic. It is these asymptomatic carrier situations that make us worry a little bit.”

More than 90% of people, according to scientific data cited by Dobbs, do not get sick from the coronavirus if vaccinated. But Dobbs speculated that a much larger number — maybe as high as one-third of the vaccinated — could be asymptomatic carriers.

Dobbs said he believes people should avoid indoor crowds when possible, but should wear masks when indoors around people whose vaccination status is unknown.

He said if he had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., he would probably go to an outdoor ballgame. “But I am not going to a bar,” Dobbs added. “There is a way to be safe, but also to do stuff. I think the phase we are in now is the phase of doing things safely.”

Reeves told a reporter wearing a mask during the news conference if he was worried about infecting someone else he should not leave his home. Standing just feet from the state’s top doctor, Reeves claimed the reporter was “virtue signaling.”

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Reeves’ aversion to any mention of masks began last month at the Neshoba County Fair political speakings where he called “foolish” the current U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendation for everyone, including the vaccinated, to mask up indoors when the vaccination status of everyone in the room is not known.

The CDC recommendation is essentially the same as what Dobbs has said.

“Mask in public and use commonsense,” Dobbs said on Friday.

Reeves conceded that there might be “a marginal benefit” to wearing a mask. “The vaccine, if it works, it works… Maybe wearing a mask is a little bit better,” Reeves said.

Based on that belief, the governor said he had no intention of issuing any mask mandates. He reiterated that he would leave it up to local school districts to determine whether to mandate masks.

Reeves said there are risks associated with most functions in life.

“What each individual needs to decide is the level of risk they are willing to assume,” Reeves said.

When asked, Dobbs said he did believe wearing masks in the schools curtailed the spread of the coronavirus.

On the issue of the vaccine, Reeves, as he has in the past, told people he had been vaccinated and believed other should also take the vaccination.

“We believe the vaccine is effective. We believe it is safe,” the governor said.

Of the vaccine, Dobbs said, “We have confirmed 7,500 plus deaths from COVID (in Mississippi) and zero from the vaccine.”

“There is so much misinformation out there,” Dobbs added, saying people in 100 years will say of the current COVID-19 debate, “Oh my gosh, what a colossal communications failure because we allowed the misinformation to drown out reality.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.