After big county fair, virus hits hard in rural Mississippi

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With this being an off-election year, crowds attending the political speeches were smaller usual at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 29, 2021. The fair, also known as Mississippi's Giant House Party, is an annual event of agricultural, political, and social entertainment at what might be the country's largest campground fair. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – A rural Mississippi community is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, two weeks after hosting the Neshoba County Fair that drew thousands who lived in cabins, attended shoulder-to-shoulder outdoor concerts and listened to stump speeches — including one by the Republican governor, who decried federal masking guidance as “foolish."

Frustrated by rising COVID-19 infections, the chief executive officer of the 25-bed Neshoba General Hospital posted a message on social media this week challenging Gov. Tate Reeves to step up and show leadership.

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“@tatereeves hospitals and healthcare workers need you to help us. Where are you?” Lee McCall wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “We are overwhelmed with the surge of Covid and understaffed to safely care for our patients. Our incredible staff are holding it together but we are all at our breaking point.”

This week alone, Mississippi has broken its single-day record of new COVID-19 cases three times, with more than 3,000 cases reported Tuesday, more than 4,000 Thursday and more than 5,000 Friday. The state on Thursday broke records for patients hospitalized and patients in ICUs with COVID-19; those numbers increased again Friday. The previous records were in January, before vaccinations were widely available.

Reeves posted Wednesday on Twitter: “In spite of the angry rhetoric coming from so many, our emergency management team is doing what it does - we are calmly dealing with an ever-changing environment to meet the needs of Mississippi."

It wasn’t clear whether the governor was responding to McCall or the many other critics who have said Reeves has done too little amid the surge in virus cases.

Reeves made several trips outside Mississippi this summer, including to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Colorado, a Republican event in Florida and a basketball tournament there for one of his daughters.

Until recent days, Reeves had made few public statements about the coronavirus the past few weeks. In his July 29 speech to a conservative crowd at the Neshoba County Fair, Reeves said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave “foolish” and “harmful” advice when it told people to resume wearing masks indoors, even if vaccinated.

“It reeks of political panic so as to appear they are in control,” Reeves said during the outdoor speech. “It has nothing — let me say that again — it has nothing to do with rational science. In Mississippi, we believe in freedom.”

During a news conference Friday in Jackson, Reeves said repeatedly that he believes COVID-19 vaccines are effective but he will not set a statewide mask mandate, even for students too young to be vaccinated.

“I don't believe in mask shaming on either side,” Reeves said. “I don't believe that you ought to shame someone because they are wearing a mask because you don't believe in them, and I don't believe you ought to shame someone because they're not wearing a mask because you do believe in them.”

As of Friday, Neshoba County had the highest per-capita COVID-19 caseload in Mississippi and the 55th highest among all counties in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 case tracker.

Neshoba General is not alone in the struggle as cases of the virus' delta variant have surged.

Health officials say few intensive care beds are available anywhere in Mississippi. The state on Friday opened an air-conditioned tent as a field hospital in a parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and it is staffed by health care workers sent by the federal government.

Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. — 36% in the state, compared to 50% for the nation. Reeves himself got vaccinated on camera early this year. While he has said he thinks the COVID-19 vaccines are effective and credits former President Donald Trump for their speedy development, Reeves also defends those who choose not to get vaccinated.

The Neshoba County Fair attracts extended groups of friends and relatives who attend horse races and stay in colorful cabins where they visit on front porches in the summer heat, ducking inside for air-conditioned relief. While many are from Neshoba County, large numbers come from other places.

McCall told The Associated Press on Wednesday he believes the fair “was a contributing factor” in Neshoba County's sharp increase in virus cases. He said 30 of his employees are out sick with the virus this week, and those able to work are tired and stressed.

McCall is not a physician; he has a business background and a master's degree in public health. He said he listens to medical professionals for guidance on handling the pandemic. He said Reeves did not speak to hospital leaders while in Neshoba County for the fair.

“I have no political agenda whatsoever,” McCall said of his tweet. "I’m trying to help our community. I’m trying to help be an advocate for all of us.”


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