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Mississippi Health Officer: Wear A Mask Because Coronavirus 'Isn't Going Anywhere'


Mississippi is one of the states setting unwelcome records - records for the number of new cases of coronavirus. Until recently, Mississippi was no hot spot. But last Thursday, for the first time, the number of new cases exceeded 1,000 in a single day. The head of the State Department of Health, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said the increase is not a fluke from extra testing.

THOMAS DOBBS: Our testing volumes have been relatively stable and even a little bit lower over the most recent weeks, and our testing results with positives have gone up significantly, and our percentage positive has gone up, so it's people spreading it in the community.

INSKEEP: Dr. Dobbs is the state health officer. He was on hand as Mississippi freed businesses to reopen a few weeks ago. Companies and customers were told to take precautions, but he says they didn't always do it well.

DOBBS: It seems like we went from a shutdown mentality to - it's an all-open mentality. And especially with the social gatherings, what we've seen time and time again are violations. We've seen a lot of transmission events and block parties and sort of social events that are really distressing for us.

INSKEEP: How are you hearing about block parties? Do they make the news? Do you see them in your neighborhood? What's happening?

DOBBS: Well, visiting local communities. We try to spend a lot of time talking to the leaders in our areas and areas where we see outbreaks. In Oxford, Miss., we had a whole bunch of cases come through recently. And from our investigations, we identified that a lot of them were going to social events or fraternity rush parties. For the whole time, Mississippi's been doing case investigation and contact tracing for every case. With the new surge, we're a little bit behind, I'll have to confess. But when we dig in, we do sort of get these little nuggets of information that tell us where people are contracting it.

INSKEEP: How's mask use going in Mississippi?

DOBBS: Even though it's highly variable, we have a sense that, particularly within the African American community, we've had some good uptake and appreciate that we've made some progress on that front. But by and large, in some areas, in some communities, there's been a bit of a rejection of masks, which is very lamentable because it's such an easy way to protect your neighbors.

INSKEEP: I'm just doing a little process of elimination here. If you're in Mississippi and you have good mask use in much of the African American community but not elsewhere, are you telling me that in the white community it's a lot less common?

DOBBS: You know, anecdotally, I would say that's true, but it's also community by community or maybe different groups of folks. You know, a lot of places, we see really good adherence. But some places, it's a community by community thing. And I think the communities that haven't been affected so much have taken a little bit of a more complacent approach to it, and now we're starting to see them pay for it as we're seeing elevated cases, more transmission in those areas. You know, the virus doesn't care where you live. If you let your guard down, it's going to spread.

INSKEEP: Is there a political divide here between people who follow guidelines and people who don't?

DOBBS: With the mask thing, it certainly has been an issue. And that is really sad because, you know, especially as the evidence accumulates, we know it's a simple way to protect folks. And if everybody would just follow a little bit of the simple things, like, you know, 6 feet, a mask and small groups only, I think we'd be having an entirely different conversation right now.

INSKEEP: What is the increase in cases doing to your hospital system?

DOBBS: Well, it's stressing it out, quite honestly. It's something that we're extremely concerned about. We do monitor our hospital beds every day, especially our ICU bed capacity. Particularly in certain regions or in the Jackson area, which is the referral center for a lot of different areas, we have single-digit availability for the whole city commonly for ICU beds. And it's not just ICU beds that's the problem, but it's also the staffing. And that's where we really think the pinch is going to come.

INSKEEP: I think you said single-digit availability. Do you mean that in the area of Jackson, Miss., which is not a small place, you on some days have gotten to the point where there are fewer than 10 ICU beds available, you are on the verge of running out?

DOBBS: Oh, absolutely. All the time. Now, it runs tight periodically anyway just from normal demands. We have a pretty limited depth when it comes to health care capacity in ICUs and some of the hospital resources. But when you add COVID on top of that on an already sort of maxed-out system, it really is not something that can be maintained, especially when we're seeing more and more cases come on board.

You know, most of the cases we're seeing now are in younger folks, and they don't get quite as sick. We have seen this sort of divergence of more hospitalizations but less ICU use, which may reflect younger folks who don't really need that level of care. But as transmission sort of moves up the age ladder and maybe starts to get into the older folks - the 50s, the 60s, the 70s - we have grave concerns about what our hospital capacity is going to be.

INSKEEP: Are you nearing the point where the state might have to shut things down again?

DOBBS: We probably are going to have to look at some more restrictions. I hate that our populace seems to embrace the sort of extreme viewpoint of what you can do. It's either shut it down or full open. There's a middle point where if we hit it right and enforce it and make sure that we're doing it properly, it'll allow for us to live through this thing, 'cause this isn't going anywhere. We don't anticipate, you know, in our office that we're going to let - you know, sort of letting up at all for, you know, probably another year. And so we got to find something that we can live with that stops transmission or we'll be in the same sort of roller coaster cycle of, you know, closed down, full open. And it'll - it's going to tear us up.

INSKEEP: It sounds like that middle point that you're thinking of includes wearing a mask a lot of the time, when you can't social distance especially. Do you feel you have any idea why it is so hard for people to embrace a mask when it would seem to be - unpleasant as it is to wear one, it would seem to be less disruptive than a lot of the other measures that you'd have to take otherwise.

DOBBS: If we can get some uniformity across the political spectrum for people understanding the importance of it, I think that we can make great strides. But as long as it's separated in some sort of partisan way, it's going to continue to be a struggle. But we're trying to build a coalition of people that follow the evidence, that follow science so that we can collectively make the best decisions we can to prevent transmission, and in a way that everybody finds acceptable and is also sustainable.

INSKEEP: Dr. Thomas Dobbs is the state health officer of Mississippi. Dr. Dobbs, thank you very much.

DOBBS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.