Coronavirus secrecy: Mississippi withholds details on availability of medical supplies, tests and ventilators in state

Published 2:44 pm Thursday, April 2, 2020

Mississippi residents are unlikely to find out how much medical equipment is available in the state to respond to the coronavirus pandemic because agencies are either choosing not to release information or are citing emergency provisions that delay responses to public records requests.

The Associated Press submitted a public records request to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency on March 25 seeking information about coronavirus testing kits or testing supplies and all medical supplies, including personal protection equipment, ordered by the state. State law says agencies usually have seven working days to respond to records requests. MEMA said Thursday that the timeline does not apply because the state emergency operations center has been activated.

The agency said all requests for public records “will be handled after the agency has returned to normal operation status.”

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The Mississippi State Department of Health is not releasing information about how many ventilators are available in the state as the highly contagious spreads because utilization numbers can change quickly, the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Wednesday.

“People would freak out if they were looking and seeing, oh, it’s gone up 10% or down 10%. So, it’s such a dynamic number that we don’t publish it,” Dobbs said during a news conference in response to a question about ventilators.

Dobbs said Mississippi has plenty of ventilators available now, but officials are concerned about the demand for them in coming weeks as more people are expected to test positive for the virus and seek medical care.

The state Health Department on Thursday updated Mississippi’s confirmed coronavirus caseload to at least 1,177 people and 26 deaths.

Because testing remains limited as the outbreak grows, many people moving around their communities may not know they have contracted the virus until well after they’ve infected others. Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction of people suffering more severe illnesses can require respirators to survive, and as the caseload rapidly grows, hospitals are bracing for a wave of patients.

Gov. Tate Reeves announced Wednesday that he is ordering people statewide to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus. The order will take effect at 5 p.m. Friday and last until 8 a.m. April 20.

Reeves said his order is designed to prevent Mississippi’s health care system from becoming overwhelmed, and he called it “the right tool at the right time to save lives.”
Reeves issued his order after consulting with officials at the state Health Department and the physician who leads the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Dr. LouAnn Woodward.

In an email to Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn on Wednesday, Woodward said that without a statewide stay-at-home order, “our health system will be overwhelmed.” Woodward wrote that projections show Mississippi will see its peak need for hospital beds in late April or early May.