Coronavirus spikes in Mississippi; state health officer: ‘Really bad things are going to happen’

Published 9:58 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2020

As Mississippi saw its highest single-day increase in coronavirus cases Tuesday, the state health officer said he is not “remotely surprised” and expressed concern for the future.

The announcement came as the Mississippi Senate is working to limit lawsuits by customers who say they were exposed to COVID-19 at businesses or medical offices.

“We’ve been seeing this trend evolving over weeks,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday evening. ” As people have tried to embrace normal, but unsafe normal, it is permitting the virus to spread. We’re really going to end up paying the price for it.”

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The Mississippi Department of Health reported 611 new cases and 11 deaths Tuesday. Dobbs said the uptick is driven by community transmission of the virus from younger, asymptomatic people to their older relatives.

“If you drive around and look at how younger people are having social gatherings, they’re crowding into bars, it’s just not safe,” Dobbs said. “People are not complying, people are not wearing masks. It’s not a joke. Really bad things are going to happen.”

Dobbs said a big concern of his is the stress the new cases are putting on Mississippi’s heath care system. He said it’s already testing the state’s hospital bed capacity.

Meanwhile, a group of mostly Republican legislators are working to pass Senate Bill 3049 and before the end of the legislative session in July. The bill would shield businesses, health care providers, religious organizations and other entities from lawsuits related to COVID-19 if they show a “good faith” effort to follow public health guidelines.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has pushed for the bill at his regular coronavirus press briefings. If it lands on his desk and he signs it, the bill would take effect retroactively to March 14.

“In the beginning of this thing, nobody really knew what to do. Should you wear a mask, should you not, should you do this, should you do that? It provides some protection for our essential business who did remain open,” Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairwoman Sally Doty said during a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Doty, a Republican from Brookhaven, said fear of litigation has stopped businesses from providing services the last several months. She said the problem is still persistent now that state is reopening.

The bill would still allow people to sue if plaintiffs can show “clear and convincing evidence” that a business owner acted with “actual malice or willful, intentional misconduct.”

“It still allows recovery of damages if there is a bad actor,” Doty said.

It cleared the Judiciary A Committee by a voice vote Tuesday and will move to the full Senate for consideration.

Several Republican lawmakers praised the bill, including Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch, who runs an optometry and ophthalmology practice.

“There is a fear in the medical community that I see that if they go back to doing procedures too early than they will be punished for it,” Parker said.

Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, a lawyer, asked why the bill caps damages at $250,000 for those who prove that a business owner acted maliciously, when the state usually caps non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $500,000. Doty said lawmakers are trying to balance the needs of business owners and those of the public.

The Mississippi Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — has had at least 22,898 cases and 989 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening.

The Health Department said at least 2,418 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 494 virus-related deaths in those facilities.