Mississippi college town reinstates mask mandate as hospital system ‘failing’ under stress of COVID-19 surge

Published 9:16 pm Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Leaders of a Mississippi college town voted Tuesday to reinstate a mask mandate on the same day the local hospital reached its capacity to care for COVID-19 patients.

By a vote of 4-3, the Oxford Board of Aldermen voted to require masks be worn in all indoor spaces, unless actively eating or drinking, and at outdoor gatherings where social distancing is not possible. The mandate will go into effect at 4 p.m. on Wednesday and the Board will revisit it during a meeting next week.

Aldermen Kesha Howell-Atkinson, Brian Hyneman, Preston Taylor and Rick Addy voted in favor of the motion while Aldermen John Morgan, Jason Bailey and Mark Huelse voted against it. The motion was made by Addy and seconded by Taylor.

Prior to the vote, Mayor Robyn Tannehill announced that Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi declared an internal disaster earlier on Tuesday. Tannehill also said the city requested a mobile hospital, which would provide 50 extra beds. As of the start of the meeting they were still waiting to hear back, according to Tannehill.

“I call this special meeting today because our hospital system, quite honestly, is failing,” Tannehill said. “Everything we thought would happen last time COVID peaked is happening now and it’s worse than anticipated.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 46 COVID-19 patients in beds at the hospital with 13 of those in the Intensive Care Unit. Lafayette County reported 47 new cases on Tuesday.

Dr. Micheal Koury, who is a physician in the emergency department at BMHNM, spoke to the Board about what he is witnessing and experiencing at the hospital. Koury stated the hospital is taking a triage approach to patients that come into the emergency room and hospital, treating the most serious first and working down to the least serious.

“Our ER is at its stress point,” Koury stated. “We’re at max capacity.”

During the discussion, Hyneman made the first proposal of implementing another mask mandate as another means to help mitigate the surge of COVID-19 cases caused mostly by the Delta variant that as run through the country this summer.

Huelse and Morgan were concerned about the effect of putting the mandate back in place would be on small businesses. Bailey also echoed the same concern but also reiterated a large number of cases are those who are not vaccinated.

According to Tannehill, 98 percent of the patients at BMHNM are not vaccinated.

“I know how to beat it is to get vaccinated. So, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Bailey said.

Oxford police chief Jeff McCutchen also spoke prior to the Board’s vote and provided numbers from last year when their was a city-wide mask mandate in place.

The Oxford Police Department answered 2,816 calls regarding masks, which averaged out to over 350 calls per month. McCutchen told the Board that if they reinstated the mask mandate, OPD would also have to “triage” the calls and take care of the more serious calls first.

There have already been 130 felony arrests made by OPD this year.

“We’re dealing with a lot and to chase these calls down is going to be an extreme challenge,” McCutchen said. “I’m not telling you we can’t go to those calls, but there’s going to be a lot of times where we’re going to have to make decisions on, ‘Are we going to go to that call or are we going to stay on neighborhood burglary details or community service events?’ Those are going to take a huge toll.”

The mandate does not include the University of Mississippi or the Oxford School District buildings. Late last month, OSD put a mask mandate in place, which they extended to Sept. 15 during a special meeting last Friday.