Former Mississippi emergency chief says coronavirus response pits ‘economics over public health’

Published 4:21 pm Saturday, March 28, 2020

Not everyone is happy with how Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is managing the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee Smithson, the former director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said he can’t believe what Reeves has and has not done while following the lead of the Trump administration in the health crisis, he told The Sun Herald.

“I’m so frustrated by the whole thing,” said Smithson, who also served as director of military support for the Mississippi National Guard. “The only thing I can do is minimize my outings and take care of my family. I think it’s going to get a whole lot worse.”

Added Smithson, “We’re looking at economics over public health.”

Smithson is among thousands who have asked Reeves to issue stay-at-home orders for all but essential businesses. Instead, Reeves has allowed businesses such as restaurants and retail stores to continue operating as the state’s numbers continue to rise.

As of Saturday, the state’s health department said there were more than 660 confirmed infections in Mississippi and 13 deaths, up from at least 579 cases and eight deaths reported a day earlier.

Although most people recover and many suffer only mild symptoms, COVID-19 can cause serious illness including respiratory problems for some, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. The disease is highly contagious.

“Since the onset of the outbreak, the Governor immediately began developing and implementing Mississippi’s preparedness and response planning, including declaring a state of emergency, extending school closures by four weeks, and ensuring paid leave for local level employees,” his office said Friday in an email.

But Smithson said that’s not enough.

“In my opinion, not imposing a shelter in place and clarifying what are truly essential facilities, you’re going to force health care providers to decide who lives and who dies because there simply won’t be enough bed space,” Smithson said.

The governor’s office said Reeves has taken remarkable steps to keep Mississippi residents safe.

Reeves’ communications director, Renae Eze, said in an email that after consulting with state and federal health officials, they have not yet received any recommendations to establish a shelter-in-place order.

“Should the situation in our state change, the Governor is ready to issue a shelter in place — whether it be for a city, a region, or the entire state,”she said. “Throughout the state’s ongoing response to COVID-19, the Governor has asked businesses to let all nonessential employees go home and asked Mississippians to stay home as much as possible.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death