Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, right, watches an unmasked Gov. Tate Reeves respond to a reporter's question during a news briefing regarding Mississippi's COVID-19 response in Jackson, Miss., Aug. 13, 2021. Reeves did not wear a face mask during the 90-minute briefing. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi has record COVID-19 hospitalizations, could soon “see a failure of the hospital system,” and the specter looms of sick Mississippians dying in makeshift parking-garage hospitals.

Please, please get vaccinated, wear a mask, and kids and teachers should wear masks in school.

Or…

We’re not seeing record hospitalizations, things are under control “in spite of the angry rhetoric coming from so many,” and everyone needs to “remain calm” and “ignore all the irrational folks.”

Get vaccinated, if you want, but it’s understandable if you don’t because of vaccination “risks.” Masks are minimally effective and “foolish.”

Mississippians are receiving mixed messages as the pandemic infects record numbers. The first message is from state medical and education leaders. The latter is from Gov. Tate Reeves.

Mississippians are faced with a choice: Listen to experts with M.D. and other degrees behind their names, or listen to the state’s chief executive, a career politician who mostly practices finger-in-the-wind politics with his policy decisions and proclamations.

They’re out of tune and do not appear to be communicating well despite this dark hour, as under-vaccinated Mississippi bears the brunt of the fourth wave of the pandemic.

READ MORE: Mississippi lives are at risk. Our governor is hiding, avoiding the tough politics.

Reeves had been mostly absent, publicly, as the delta variant hit Mississippi the last few weeks. This prompted one Mississippi hospital CEO early last week to tweet at Reeves: “Hospitals and healthcare workers need you to help us. Where are you? … we are all at our breaking point.”

But last week, as state medical experts, public school leaders and parents had their hair on fire and sounded the alarm, Reeves returned to Mississippi from political travels and broke his silence.

On Wednesday, he posted a listicle of “what our team is doing on behalf of our fellow Mississippians” on Twitter and Facebook.

It started with, “#1 — we are not panicking,” and went on to list numerous measures, much of which the state’s health leaders and others had already announced they were doing. This includes creating a makeshift 50-bed unit in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s parking garage and asking the feds or other states to provide medical staff.

Reeves also stated, falsely, that Mississippi pandemic hospitalizations and patients in ICU beds remained below peak levels from August 2020. Later in the week, he acknowledged infections were reaching record levels.

On Thursday, with hospitals and school leaders really sweating a Sunday deadline, Reeves reversed his decision to let his state of emergency declaration expire, which could have hamstrung state and local pandemic efforts and the ability to receive federal help.

On Friday, for the first time in months, Reeves held an open COVID-19 press conference, flanked by State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and state emergency management director Stephen McCraney.

Reeves praised their work as “above and beyond” and indicated he’d been working closely with them.

And Reeves urged Mississippians, for the first time rather unequivocally, to get vaccinated.

But then, as the press conference went on, Reeves equivocated again on vaccination, contradicted Dobbs on medical issues and science, and chalked any questions or criticism of his leadership in the pandemic to “figments of the imagination of the press.”

READ MORE: Reeves counters top doctor’s masking advice during his first news conference in months

Dobbs noted, “We have confirmed 7,500-plus deaths from COVID, and zero from the vaccine.”

Reeves said, “The reality is there are risks associated with taking the vaccine. There are risks associated with not taking the vaccine … There are potential side effects. We need to be honest with people … We ought to be honest about the pluses and minuses, and the people of Mississippi can make a good and the right decision.”

Reeves has, to date, been unable to bring himself even to unequivocally call on Mississippians to get vaccinated, full stop. He has typically feathered his messages to appease anti-vaxxers.

His most common message has been: “Talk to your doctor. Assess the risk. Do the right thing for you. Do the right thing for your family.”

Despite recommendations from Dobbs and the health department and other medical and education groups, Reeves has been adamant he will not issue state mask wearing mandates, even for hotspots (Neshoba County is the hottest COVID-19 hotspot in the nation) and schools seeing major outbreaks.

On Friday he made clear he’s not inclined to issue any “top down” state directives on the pandemic and castigated media for “virtue signaling.”

He said: “There are risks associated with functioning in life. What every individual needs to decide is what level of risk they are willing to live with.”

Given the state’s dire situation, it would appear Reeves might need to heed his own message: Governor, talk to your doctors. Assess the risks. Do the right thing for Mississippi.

READ MORE: Teachers, pediatricians urge Gov. Reeves for masks in schools: ‘It’s never too late to do the right thing’


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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.