Mississippi prison confirms first coronavirus case after inmate’s death

Published 9:11 pm Monday, April 13, 2020

The Mississippi Department of Corrections on Monday night made its first announcement of a coronavirus case in one of the state prisons.

An inmate at the Mississippi State Penitentiary was found to have had to the virus after he died, the department said in a news release. It did not give the inmate’s name or say when he died. It said he had underlying health problems.

“We are committed to protecting the health and well-being of all within our system,” Interim Corrections Commissioner Tommy Taylor said.

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He said that since the beginning of the pandemic, Mississippi has limited the transfer of inmates from prison to prison. The only visitors allowed are attorneys, and daily screenings are done of prison workers.

“With this first positive case, we have further isolated all the affected areas and increased screenings for all the inmates who came in contact with the individual,” Taylor said. “Inmates who came in close contact with the positive individual have been provided with masks.”

A Mississippi mayor said Monday that people will not have to pay $500 tickets that police issued to them last week for attending drive-up church services during the pandemic.

Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons said, however, that the city’s ban on such gatherings remains in place to try to save lives as the highly contagious virus continues to spread. The Democrat also called on Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to issue clear statewide guidance on whether people are allowed to congregate for worship during the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order that remains in effect until April 20.

The governor’s order tells people not to gather in groups of 10 or more. Reeves has said he would prefer that churches not hold services in sanctuaries or parking lots. But he has also said government does not have the right to ban worship.

Figures released Monday by the state Health Department showed Mississippi had at least 2,942 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 98 deaths from it as of Sunday evening. That was an increase of 161 cases and two deaths from the previous day. The state’s population is about 3 million.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

Reeves said during a briefing Monday that Mississippi, like other states, is in an “economic crisis” because of the pandemic. He said he will continue to consult health experts about when a wide reopening of businesses might be safe.

“We need to open things up as quickly as we responsibly can,” Reeves said.

He will announce Tuesday whether he will keep public schools closed beyond this Friday.

The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Monday that Mississippi is approaching its projected peak for virus cases. He said coronavirus patients were in 124 intensive care unit beds in the state Sunday, and 206 other ICU beds were available.

Dobbs said 84 of the virus patients were on ventilators, and 496 other ventilators were available statewide. The Health Department had previously not provided information about ventilators.

The coronavirus has spread rapidly in Washington County, where Greenville is located. The new Health Department figures show the county has at least 57 confirmed cases in a population of about 44,000. The Greenville mayor said Monday that city leaders are not trying to deny people the ability to practice their faith.

Texas-based First Liberty Institute emailed a letter to Greenville officials Thursday demanding that the city drop the “draconian and unconstitutional” restriction on worship services.

The group said the pastor of one Greenville church has been standing in the parking lot and using a bullhorn to deliver his sermon while people sit in a few cars to listen. The letter said Greenville police issued $500 tickets on Wednesday to people parked outside another church for a similar service.

Jeremy Dys, an attorney for First Liberty, said in a statement Monday: “The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville.”

Another group, Alliance Defending Freedom, has sued the city.

Simmons said he and other Greenville leaders have been the subject of a “smear campaign” by people who try to portray them as anti-religious.

“My record is clear on the support of faith-based communities and serving in our personal walk with Jesus,” Simmons said during a news conference outside Greenville City Hall.

During an interview with The Associated Press, Simmons said Greenville’s order limiting in-person and drive-up worship will remain in effect as long as the governor’s stay-at-home order is in place. Only the City Council could repeal the local order.

Simmons said police will enforce the limits, first by asking people not to congregate in groups and then by issuing tickets if they refuse to leave.