Mississippi Today’s political team discusses the recent leadership of Gov. Tate Reeves. As the state’s COVID-19 crisis has become more dire than ever — as the state’s hospital system is reportedly days to failure — Reeves has been largely out of the public eye and is receiving criticism from every quarter.
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Read a transcript of the episode below.
Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. I’m your host, Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. From breaking news to political strategy to interviews with candidates and elected officials, we’ll bring you facts, perspectives, and context that helps you cut through the noise and understand all sides of the story. You’ll also hear from our award-winning journalists who will share their insights as they cover the biggest political stories in the state.
Joining us today are my colleagues Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender. Hey y’all, how you doing?
Bobby Harrison: Hey guys.
Geoff Pender: Hey Adam.
Adam Ganucheau: Well, we are a gathered socially distanced of course at our offices on Friday, August 13th, the morning of. So, you know, there certainly could be some news between now and when you hear this podcast a few days from now, but we’re going to record, you know, like I said, just as of right now talking about what we know. This has been a very eventful past few days in Mississippi.
Hard to describe what’s going on in Mississippi in any other way, but bleak. Just a minute ago, like I said, as we’re recording Friday the 13th on August 13th, the state department of health reported more than 5,000 new cases of COVID just in a 24 hour span. That beats the previous record going into this week by almost 2,000 cases though this past week alone we broke that record three different days.
This week as well we heard a dire warning from the state’s top medical professionals who said that at this current trajectory of new COVID cases, knowing that so many Mississippians are unvaccinated and that those people of course are the ones who are getting sickest and needing hospital care, they warned us that the hospital system across the state of Mississippi could fail within a matter of days, five to 10 days was the date given on August 10th.
We have kids going back to schools across the state, of course, for their normal fall semester. Many of them without having to wear masks. This delta variant of the virus, as we know from scientific data that’s been collected both nationally and now in the state, that the delta variant is affecting kids a lot more directly than the previous variants.
So because of that, a lot of schools are within a matter of days because of really big outbreaks that are happening inside. The school buildings are having to close their doors for at least a temporary period to try to stop the spread of the virus. I could go on it. It’s again hard not to talk about just the darkness of this moment in our state, but Bobby and Geoff, what I kind of want us to talk about today is what I feel like most everybody in the state is talking about today.
And that is wondering where our governor is. Governor Tate Reeves has been largely silent the last few weeks on COVID as the virus has spread and reached to this very scary, terrifying moment. Geoff, it was about two, two and a half weeks ago now that I think you first asked via reporting analysis: Where is Tate Reeves?
In the last two and a half weeks, we have seen him move some, but certainly that question has been boosted across media outlets in the state, across just regular Mississippians who have seen the rise of the virus and are scared. I guess, Geoff, what prompted you to ask that question to begin with a few weeks ago, and what are you seeing and hearing now about our governor and his leadership?
Geoff Pender: Well, from a couple of weeks ago, that was really specific to vaccinations and what I was hearing from a lot of people, a lot of other state leaders. We were seeing this outbreak getting worse, certainly throughout the Southeast at an unbelievable pace.
And we were seeing other governors in similarly situated states with low vaccination rates. They were getting out there and really beating the drums of, “Hey, go get vaccinated,” things like that. And. Reeves just wasn’t. He I think during that period had spent a lot of time on the road traveling to some political events, Republican Governors Association.
Adam Ganucheau: He was out of state several times.
Geoff Pender: Sure, sure. He was over in Florida at a political event type thing, and he just wasn’t weighing in. And even when asked he didn’t appear to be weighing in. And since then we’ve seen him break the silence a little bit. As we speak today, he’s planned a press conference.
But one thing we’ve seen when he has broken the silence, and typically that’s been with a tweet or something, but he appears to, I don’t know, I guess not agree with the state’s medical experts maybe not be communicating. You know, it’s the messages he’s given about vaccinations have been, “Hey, you should get vaccinated, but I understand if you don’t want to. That’s your choice.”
Adam Ganucheau: “Do what’s best for you.”
Geoff Pender: “Totally understand. Do what’s best for you and your family.” Again, compared to, I mean, a lot of other states where it seemed like their leaders, both medical and chief executives or whatever were getting on the same page at least.
And I don’t know about everyone else, but when I’m hearing doctors say our medical system is about to fail, and they’ve been out there saying, “Please, please, please, please get vaccinated. Please wear a mask.” To hear our governor, or not hear him a lot of the time— but I don’t know. It’s just been a bizarre absence.
I mean, during, you know, the state’s darkest hour, your leader, your chief executive I feel like needs to be out there. Now, again, he’s kind of broken his silence this week, but a lot of his messaging has been to, you know, scold the media or refer obliquely to irrational people. I don’t know if he’s also including his medical experts in that.
And at this point it’s still unclear. You know, governor, do you support vaccinations? Do you feel like Mississippians should get vaccinated to try and stave off this terrible crisis? Do you believe in masks? Do they work? Should people wear them? He’s just not been giving clear messaging. And if ever there were a time I think people would like to see that the medical leaders and our elected leaders are all working together and communicating seems like this would be it. I mean, I think I’m like a lot of Mississippians. I don’t want to die in a parking garage.
Adam Ganucheau: Sure. Of course referencing the parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The state’s largest medical center had to erect this past week in a parking garage because they had run out of the hospital bed space, Bobby, what’s struck you the last few days and weeks of Tate Reeves’ leadership?
Bobby Harrison: I mean, not just the last few weeks, but I’m going back to the sort of the onset of this virus back March of 2020. I mean, I think Governor Reeves has at times taken decisive action and done some good things, but he has been his own worst enemy in terms of making the actions he’s taken work.
He like, for instance, just at the Neshoba County fair, which turns out apparently was a super spreader back in July— you know, I don’t have the exact quote, but he said, you know, the CDC’s new recommendation is to wear a mask indoors, especially around people you don’t know whether they were vaccinated or not. You know, he said that was just like bad science and foolage. And yet the guy he’s going to have a press conference today with who he says he respects and has tried to abide by his decisions as much as he could, Thomas Dobbs, the state’s health officer, adopted that recommendation as the state’s recommendation almost immediately after it happened.
I mean, Geoff mentioned vaccinations. Sometimes he talks about vaccinations, the importance of vaccinations. And yet he, you know, in the next sentence he just says, “You know, if you don’t want to get it. I understand.” He doesn’t let the science dictate. He talks about the science and he embraces the science to a certain extent, but then he always sort of runs back to the political side of the equation.
You know, whether it’s talking about, you know, “Vaccinations are good, but you know, if you don’t get them that’s okay too,” or, you know, “The CDC doesn’t know what it’s talking about when it talks about wearing masks.” You know, at one point, you know, he talks about the importance of masks, but then he, you know, he says the CDC doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
It’s foolish. So, I mean, it seems that part of him understands the science and the urgency of the situation, but he always goes back to what I think his core being is, which is, you know, politics. And he just can’t escape that political strain. It’s part of his DNA. I think that’s part of the problem.
Adam Ganucheau: I think, you know, you just touched on this, and Geoff, you did too a minute ago. Looking at his leadership the past few weeks, and when I say few weeks, I really mean since around the first of the first week of July when the delta variant really started taking its grip on Mississippi—
Bobby Harrison: Well, I think it sneaked up on him at that time too. I think it sneaked up on a lot of us.
Adam Ganucheau: On all of us I think to be fair. But you know, just thinking back to sort of like drawing sort of comparisons to two different things. First off, Geoff, you mentioned other governors and what they’ve done. I mean, just look at our neighboring states. You know, Republican Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama very, very strongly directly said the reason we are where we are right now is because people won’t get vaccinated. She’s done a lot herself to kind of get out there in front of that narrative and say that as directly as she can. Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas, another neighborhood neighboring state, of course, you know, he has gone on a statewide tour promoting vaccinations, telling Arkansans to get vaccinated. And you know, go down the list of other Republican governors from around the country who stepped up and said very directly bluntly, “Go get the vaccine. There’s no option here. You know, the data bears us out.” I was just looking today. Again, we just reported more than 5,000 cases for the first time. It just smashed a daily case record. Ninety-eight percent of those positive confirmed cases were not vaccinated.
Two percent were vaccinated. Just from the deaths reported on this day, there’s 31 new deaths. Eighty-four percent of them were not vaccinated. Sixteen percent were vaccinated. Of the hospitalizations reported this week, 90% of them were unvaccinated people, whereas 10% were vaccinated. So the data clearly shows in addition to, if you don’t want to listen to the health experts, that’s fine.
Like, I don’t know what to tell you, but that’s fine. Look at the numbers. They’re not making up these numbers. The medical clinics across the state that are reporting them are not making this up. The data bears this out, both in Mississippi and nationally, that vaccines are the way to do it. They save lives.
They protect people even if you get a breakthrough case, it makes it better. But the other point I was gonna make too, in addition to comparing Reeves’ leadership to our neighboring states, the governors, Republican governors in other states, look at his own leadership just a year ago. It’s a good example.
So the start of a second COVID wave was hitting Mississippi one year ago, August of 2020. And you know, kids were going back into the classrooms. It was a big conversation because you know, schools had been canceled. In person school had been canceled for the spring semester in the spring of 2020. Big question of whether or not to send kids back to school, and Tate Reeves, who had the sole authority to do this, decided that that schools would go back, but he was going to implement a school mask mandate. That was based on medical advice at the time. The quotes from Reeves at the time were, “Look, this was not an easy decision to make, but everything points to masks being effective to stop the spread of this virus.” Well, fast forward a year, when we’re experiencing a much worse COVID wave. Way more people are becoming infected.
And like I said earlier, more children are being infected with this virus. Reeves decided because the politics of mask wearing, particularly among kids, has become such a political sort of volatile issue, he decided that he was going to leave it up to individual school districts across the state to decide for themselves whether or not to implement a mask policy. You know, masking is one of many examples of just the contrast of leadership words and actions from Tate Reeves from his own in the past few months leadership earlier during the pandemic.
Bobby Harrison: Yeah. One silver lining in that Adam that— and I added an an addendum to your well-written analysis on Reeves that you did earlier or last week on social media— is at least in Mississippi Reeves or the legislature have not passed a law or an executive order to ban local governments from issuing masks mandates like they have in some states. You know, you talk about Arkansas. Governor Hutchinson is now saying he regretted signing into law a bill that banned mask mandates in that state. And so at least that’s one small silver lining for Mississippi.
Adam Ganucheau: That’s right.
Geoff Pender: I probably just didn’t think of it, Bobby. Look, to me I mean with what we’re talking about today, the crux of the biscuit here is, you know, let’s face it. If anyone could lead or maybe change minds with the group that is set against vaccinations or wearing mask, if one person could maybe make a dent in that, it would be Tate Reeves, but the governor is not trying to lead those people to something that would help the state overall. He’s instead letting them lead him. He’s, you know, extremely mindful of their politics and extremely worried that that could somehow hurt him with them. So, I mean, he’s not leading. He’s holding his finger to the wind and following those political winds to some extent again, I don’t know.
To me, he appears to be someone who’s fairly confident this is going to be very transient, and maybe we’ll get over this crisis soon. It would appear he’s banking on that, but jeez, the rates we’re seeing right now, it’s dire. And you know, some of the the warnings coming from our medical leaders and, you know again, who do you listen to: someone with M.D. or other diploma alphabets behind their names in healthcare or, you know, career politician who appears to be making decisions based at least on part on politics?
Bobby Harrison: This is a pretty obvious statement, but I think we forget it sometimes. We’re focused so much on COVID-19, rightfully so, but the problems with the hospitals, the state healthcare system doesn’t just affect those with COVID-19. I mean, if you have a wreck today on I-55 driving downtown or coming back home, and you go to the hospital, your treatment is going to be compromised because there’s so many people there that they have to treat who have COVID-19. I mean, there may not be a bed for you because they’re all filled with COVID-19 patients.
So, you know, Governor Reeves called this up to a large extent now “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” To a big extent it’s true, but it affects the entire state and the entire state’s healthcare system now. I mean, and I don’t want to be just gloom and doom. You know, there’s steps being taken now.
We mentioned the hospital garage being opened up. There’s efforts to get more staff into the state to help. The federal government, I think, is helping with that. The federal government is stepping in in a lot of areas. And to give credit to Governor Reeves, that’s being done to at least a certain extent because of the emergency order he put in place that he thankfully is not going to let expire.or terminate later this weekend. At one time he said he was, so that was some of the big news this week, if he’s gone to extend the state of emergency so all those things can from the federal government coming in to help to hospitals being able to work better together to send patients to open beds throughout the state, all those things are gonna go on because the state of emergency is going to continue.
Adam Ganucheau: You know one thing that I know that y’all have been accused of— I’ve seen it. I certainly have been accused of this the last few days as we’ve been, I mean, pretty directly critical of Governor Reeves’ leadership. You know, first off I do think it’s the role of the press that in times of crisis especially to provide, I don’t know, criticism, pressure. That’s what we do. I mean, we ask questions that need to be asked if people aren’t being served effectively by their government leaders, but we’ve all been accused of the last few days of playing politics right now. You know, for journalists, that that’s not new to us, especially the last few years.
I mean, it’s something that’s gone on forever. Anytime that we write something that somebody disagrees with or makes them look bad, they’ll say, “Oh, well, they’re just politically against me.” I don’t know a single journalist, certainly not in our newsroom, who gives a rat’s ass right now about Tate Reeves’ election cycle.
I think right now we are all focused on trying to help Mississippi get through this very dark moment. And, you know, I would just encourage you if you’ve listened to this podcast, if you’ve read our stuff, and you think that we’re doing this because we’re trying to defeat Tate Reeves in two years, get a grip. I mean, this is way beyond politics.
This is is a dire moment. I think we will look back on this moment as one of the darkest moments in our state’s history. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
Geoff Pender: You know, look, Reeves that’s part of his playbook to blame the media for many things. That’s fine or whatever, but I’ve got news for him.
This is not just the media asking, “Where are you, and what are you doing? And why haven’t you been given some directives here?” I mean, that’s been coming from a lot of quarters. Neshoba County Hospital executive asking that question, “Where are you? Please help us.” I mean, look, these are terrifying times.
They have been for awhile and they’re getting scarier and scarier right now. And you know, people want leadership during those times. They don’t want someone tweeting sarcastic stuff about how bad the media is. They want to hear that that our leaders are working together. They’re looking at data, they’re coming up with a plan, and they’re going to try and, you know, tamp this crisis down.
And again, that’s not just coming from the media, and he can pretend like that’s it or whatever but, you know, he needs to keep in mind he’s right now in the territory of his legacy as governor. I mean, unless some, you know, other plague comes along or something like this, I mean, this is a defining moment for him.
And from many quarters, people are saying, we need somebody to lead us right now.
Bobby Harrison: Well, I’m not sure what this means, and I’m just throwing this out and not commenting on it other than to say that Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann has, you know late last night or sometime last night, put up a Facebook post on social media a video urging people to get vaccinated and the importance of vaccination.
Geoff Pender: Actually, I don’t know about the video, but he did a radio ad weeks ago during the start of this wave, “Please, please get vaccinated.” He’s, to my knowledge, the only state leader that’s done that, but he did have a radio ad up several weeks ago.
Bobby Harrison: Well, I mean, Reeves does talk about the importance of the vaccination.
I don’t want to mislead people. As we said, in the next breath he says, “That’s okay, —”
Geoff Pender: “I understand if you don’t want to.”
Bobby Harrison: Yeah, but he does talk. I thought it was a strong comment he made earlier this week when he talked about this was a pandemic of the unvaccinated, which actually is a phrase he borrowed from the CDC director who he often criticizes.
Adam Ganucheau: I think for many people, it is too late. But it’s truly never too late to, you know, change the tune, to change the narrative. And I think we’re starting to see that. I think maybe by the time this podcast publishes, we will have heard some very direct pleas from Tate Reeves to do the right thing to get vaccinated.
And I don’t know that he’s going to continue equivocating. I don’t know that he can. I mean, I could be wrong. I’m not to not going to bet any money on that, but look, to his credit he’s doing this press conference today, which as best I can tell is his first sort of COVID press availability, the first time he’s made himself truly publicly available in this way since January, maybe early February when we were kind of experiencing that third wave still.
Bobby Harrison: Yeah. The question at this press conference is is he going to spend it talking about COVID? Is he going to spend it talking about the press?
Adam Ganucheau: That’s right. I mean, everybody will know what happened by the time you hear the podcast, but just know that we three journalists are looking forward to it.
Geoff Pender: One other thing. Bobby, you say the press, but I mean, at times he appears to, at least obliquely, be referring to medical experts.
Bobby Harrison: His default position is that’s what he’s actually doing, but he always sort of says it’s the press’ fault, even though we’re in many cases just echoing what the medical experts are saying.
Geoff Pender: He’s also referred to the state’s medical experts as “so-called experts.”
Bobby Harrison: That’s part of it.
Geoff Pender: He referred to “irrational folks.” He didn’t explain, and I’m just going to assume he means us in the media in that, but you also tend to think he’s referring to state medical leaders as well.
Bobby Harrison: Well, the vaccination rate is ticking up in the state right now, so that’s a good thing.
Adam Ganucheau: Yeah, slowly but surely. I think we started a couple of weeks ago we were at 33, 34%.
I think we’re up to 38 as of this recording, so it’s getting better. That’s a very good sign.
Bobby Harrison: Yeah. I think some people are saying, “Whoa.”
Adam Ganucheau: Yeah, that’s right. I’ll end, at least my portion of this podcast on this note. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Lane Kiffin, the Ole Miss head football coach, is better at getting Mississippians vaccinated than our governor.
He’s been doing a national media tour, urging Mississippians and others to get vaccinated because of how bad things are. He got a hundred percent of his team and coaches and staff in the football program to get vaccinated, the first school in the country to get to a hundred percent in that regard.
So look, you know, it’s about doing the right thing. It’s about stepping up, and it’s about leading to y’all’s points.
Bobby Harrison: Yeah. I’m not keeping up with that as well as you are. How’s Coach Leach doing?
Geoff Pender: No comment.
Adam Ganucheau: I’m going to plead the fifth on that. I think my fandom of a certain flagship university in this state precludes me from saying too much about Mississippi State.
But anyways, y’all thank you so much for covering all of this, for breaking it down for us, for holding Tate Reeves’ feet to the fire. I think you can expect that we’ll continue to do that. Mississippians deserve nothing less. And, you know, look, if you disagree with any of this, like I said you know, I’m sorry to hear that. Reach out.
If you want to have an earnest conversation about that, shoot me an email. Find me on Twitter. I’d be happy to talk with you about it. But Geoff, Bobby, thank you all for being here and thanks for what you’re doing.
Geoff Pender: Thanks, Adam.
Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.
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Subscribe to our weekly podcast on your favorite podcast app or stream episodes online at MississippiToday.org/the-other-side. For the Mississippi Today team, I’m Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side is produced by Mississippi Today and engineered by Blue Sky Studios. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode.