Mississippi plans to stop coronavirus by tracing contacts, but without stay-at-home order

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mississippi will begin investigations to find people who have been near those testing positive for the coronavirus and will tell those contacts to quarantine themselves, Gov. Tate Reeves and the state health officer announced Thursday.

Reeves said the contact-tracing plan “will allow us to shift from playing defense to playing offense” to try to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Reeves has been facing criticism from some lawmakers and mayors who say he has not been aggressive enough. The Republican governor issued an order Tuesday telling people to keep distance from others and to stay home when possible. But he has not issued a stay-at-home order as some governors have done.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“We are not at the end of this challenge, but we are closer to the beginning,” Reeves said Thursday during a news conference outside the Governor’s Mansion.

The health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said the contact-tracing plan is based on programs that helped slow the spread of the virus in Singapore and South Korea.

Those countries have had widespread testing, though, and that scale of testing is not yet available in the United States. It’s not clear whether the contact-tracing efforts in Mississippi are beginning too late to have much effect or whether the state Health Department and other agencies will have enough people to work on the program.

Dobbs said if health officials find a rapid growth of cases in a particular community, they could seek broad limitations on people’s movements.

Mississippi legislators left the state Capitol last week to curb the spread of the virus in a building that typically attracts hundreds of people a day. House and Senate leaders said Thursday that they are dropping the plan for legislators to return April 1, and the session remains on hold indefinitely.

Mississippi, like other states, is seeing a sharp increase in claims for temporary jobless benefits as people seek help amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Applications for unemployment benefits submitted in Mississippi rose to 6,723 during the week ending March 21, according to a release Thursday from the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.

That is an increase of 486% from the number of applications submitted the previous week and an increase of 623% from the number of applications submitted the same week last year.

The number of claims filed represents 0.6% of the total workforce of Mississippi that is eligible for the unemployment insurance program.

Applying for benefits was proving difficult for many people because of busy phone lines and problems with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security website.

The Health Department said Thursday that Mississippi had at least 485 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday evening. Because testing remains limited, most people now spreading the highly contagious virus may not know that they’ve been infected.

Mississippi on Thursday also reported another death from the virus, bringing the state total to at least six. But, testing remained so limited that it was unclear whether the outbreak had caused other deaths.

The state Health Department said the death announced Thursday was a Rankin County man who was 80-85 years old and was hospitalized with underlying health conditions.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems and some need respirators to survive.

With infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.

The state Health Department and the University of Mississippi Medical Center are opening drive-thru testing centers for Friday only in two northern counties — DeSoto and Coahoma.

Reeves issued an executive order Tuesday that seeks to limit people’s physical interactions. He told restaurants and bars statewide to close their dining rooms and limit service to takeout or delivery.

An exception is for dining rooms that would be limited to 10 or fewer people who would keep distance from each other.

Some Mississippi cities and counties are setting curfews and other restrictions tighter than the ones ordered statewide by Reeves. Clarksdale, Greenwood, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian, Oxford Port Gibson and Tupelo are among the cities where officials have told people not to congregate in large groups.

Adams County has set a nighttime curfew.

Reeves issued a second order Thursday to clarify that it’s OK for cities and counties to set restrictions tighter than he is setting statewide, as long as the local rules don’t prevent people from going to jobs that are considered essential, such as those at grocery stores.