October 23, 2020

Pandemic politics: ‘This is a disease of a splintered society, where people don’t trust science and run quickly to every crazy theory … to avoid reality.’

When it looked as though Mississippi might be starting to successfully control the spread of coronavirus in mid-May, three Starkville doctors sat down with a local sports reporter to discuss the upcoming football season.

The three men each said they’d feel safe attending a Mississippi State game — with normal attendance in a stadium that holds 60,000 people — come fall. At that point, Mississippi had recorded more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 500 people had died.

Dr. Cameron Huxford argued that COVID-19 “wasn’t as bad as we thought”; Dr. Jim Brown called health department orders aimed at limiting the spread “an infringement on civil liberty”; and Dr. Will Carter quipped, “You can’t isolate yourselves forever.”

By July, as deaths more than doubled, cases tripled and hospitals became overwhelmed, Huxford, Brown, Carter and 15 other local male physicians doubled down, advocating in a joint letter against a local mask requirement the Starkville Board of Alderman ultimately approved.

The position of the 18 physicians, led by Dr. Huxford, who presented the arguments at the July 7 board meeting, are not shared by the nation’s primary health associations or government health agencies.

“I believe that fear, rather than hope, is the foundation of many of the decisions being made concerning this virus,” Huxford, medical director for Oktibbeha County Hospital’s intensive care unit, said in a direct message to Mississippi Today, citing his religious convictions. He also said he did not wear a mask publicly, outside of the hospital or clinic, until the city mandated it, and that he would likely not wear a mask if he traveled to a municipality that did not require it.

Huxford — who has been vocal on social media, sharing opinions and articles that serve to downplay the severity of the pandemic, to the applause of some of his followers — declined an interview with Mississippi Today. Carter and Brown did not respond. The doctors do not specialize in epidemiology or infectious disease.

As responses to the pandemic have polarized communities across the nation, the demonstration in Starkville showed that not even medical professionals are immune to the discord.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said rhetoric surrounding the virus — which, “like all things social media … finds fertile ground in groups that distrust government on a good day” — has caused Mississippians to ignore public health orders.

“It’s insanely difficult to control a pandemic when people A) think it’s not real, B) find every reason to undermine the reality of it to justify not following the rules,” Dobbs said in a recorded meeting on July 10.

The doctors clarified in their letter that they are not “against masks,” but they offered several medical reasons — such as mask usage increasing face-touching or causing health issues — against a mask mandate.

“That didn’t track for me,” said Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill. “That’s more of a political statement than it is a medical statement.”

Research increasingly supports the notion that wearing masks — especially universally among communities — helps prevent people who may not know they are COVID-19 positive from spreading the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reiterated Tuesday. Studies also show that states with mask mandates had a greater decline in COVID-19 growth rates after imposing the orders than states without mandates.

“I know for many of you this has become a political issue, but I assure you it is not,” Starkville physician Dr. Emily Landrum said at the meeting, advocating for the mask mandate, the Starkville Daily News reported. “We are almost six months into a pandemic of a novel, or new virus. There are many things about COVID-19 that we still don’t know and it will take time to learn, but there are many things that we have learned. We know that measures of masking, social distancing and hand washing are highly important to preventing unnecessary and burdensome spread of COVID-19.”

Dr. Jennifer Bryan, who chairs the Mississippi State Medical Association board of trustees, told Mississippi Today any opinions against the use of masks “are not in line with the general consensus of the medical community in the state.”

David Buys, Mississippi State University Extension health specialist, said in an email that doctors have a right like anyone else to share political opinions publicly, “but they should not have, nor should they in the future, use their credentials as health care providers and misrepresent their expertise to try to gain a policy outcome as they did.”

On Tuesday, the Mississippi State Medical Association, of which the Starkville doctors are members, released a statement calling for a statewide mask mandate.

“We strongly believe that without a statewide mask mandate our state’s healthcare system cannot sustain the trajectory of this outbreak, which could ultimately result in the loss of the lives of many Mississippians,” it read.

Strain on the health care system due the record high number of serious cases — nearly 1,100 people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 on Tuesday — is already occurring.

In the Jackson area, there is just one open intensive care unit bed at tier one and two hospitals and just seven total open, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs told reporters on Tuesday. The previous week, he told doctors during a recorded meeting that he knew of four people who had died after they were unable to get into crowded hospitals.

“They died in transit or they were in the wrong hospital and couldn’t get to where they needed to and they died. And that’s just the four I know of,” Dobbs said.

Last week, Gov. Tate Reeves imposed a mandatory mask order on 13 counties where cases are surging (to which one former lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate responded via Facebook: “I would like to see you come up here and try and make me wear a mask!”). Oktibbeha County, where Starkville is located, was not on the list.

The order took effect Monday. Reeves has repeatedly urged all Mississippians to wear a mask “as often as humanly possible.” But when asked Tuesday if he would consider imposing a similar order on the entire state as requested by the medical association, Gov. Reeves compared the tasks to a dentist trying to get compliance from their child patients.

“Some kids, if you tell them they have to brush their teeth, they just won’t do it,” he said. “It’s just the reality of where we find ourselves.”

He also Tweeted that attempting to shame people for not wearing masks “only hardens their resistance.”

Neighboring Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey implemented a statewide mask mandate Wednesday. Later in the evening, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued an order overriding local mask mandates in his state.

Starkville officials had required residents to wear masks early on in the pandemic, but Spruill said the city lost support for the measure in the community, in large part because of the doctors’ public statements. The city is among several Mississippi municipalities that imposed additional restrictions and mask orders on its residents early on in the pandemic and again after local cases increased.

“They didn’t do it for the fun of it. They did it for a reason. They did it because their cases were getting away from them and after they did it, their community numbers improved,” said Vicksburg physician Dr. Dan Edney, who sits on the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, which oversees doctor discipline.

The board is not going to consider taking actions against doctors for expressing their professional disagreements, Edney said, but it could intervene if clinics are not following health orders, such as requiring masks and limiting the number of people in waiting rooms.

In the meantime, rhetoric that discourages people from practicing protective measures against the virus remains one of the state’s biggest threats. Dobbs told Mississippi Today that Mississippi would be in a much better position with its cases today if COVID-19 conspiracy theories had not run rampant.

“We don’t have a cohesive society,” Dobbs said to doctors on July 10. “Actually, this is a disease of a splintered society, where people don’t trust science and run quickly to every crazy theory that they can to avoid reality.”

By Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today