Analysis: Public health officials under strain amid pandemic

Published 1:25 am Monday, December 7, 2020

By Emily Wagster Pettus

The Associated Press

Mississippi public health officials are working long hours during the coronavirus pandemic, providing information about caseloads and giving warnings that many people choose to simply ignore.

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The strain has been evident for months on the face of the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, an infectious disease specialist who served as Mississippi’s state epidemiologist before being named to the top job in the state Health Department in 2018.

Like many at the Health Department, Dobbs has had little time off work since the first coronavirus cases were found in Mississippi in March. He and the current state epidemiologist, Dr. Paul Byers, have appeared at dozens of news conferences to answer questions about COVID-19 — sometimes with Gov. Tate Reeves and sometimes with other physicians from the Mississippi State Medical Association.

During an online news conference last week, a reporter from WTVA-TV in Tupelo said a local physician had questioned the accuracy of the rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus cases by suggesting that one person being tested three times counts as three cases. The station reported that the person making this assertion was the director of some urgent care clinics in Tupelo — someone who, it turns out, is not a physician but does work in the health care industry.

Dobbs responded loudly, with anger and frustration in his voice.

“What a bunch of bull crap,” Dobbs said. “How many times do I have to tell people? … One person is a case. If you tested a person 3,000 times, it’s one case. Quit buying into crazy nonsense. This is dangerous. People are dying. Quit making up stupid excuses, all right? … We’re working here all night and people are making up B.S. Unbelievable.”

Dobbs has repeatedly expressed frustration at people’s insistence on attending social events and extracurricular school activities, including sports competitions.

“Our hierarchy of prioritization is extremely stupid,” Dobbs said during a Nov. 13 briefing with the medical association. “’We’re prioritizing youth sports, not only over academics. We’re actually prioritizing it over community health, just to be honest.

“And I’m not saying there’s no intrinsic value to sports,” Dobbs said. “I love sports. … But sometimes we’ve got to take a break. Sometimes we have to modify our stuff. And, you know, people lost their minds when you couldn’t have … stadiums full of football folks. Please, everybody do a little soul searching and understand: are we making the right decision with this? We are all connected.”

Mississippi’s population is just under 3 million, and the state had about 4,000 coronavirus deaths by late last week. That’s more than one death for every 1,000 residents — a grim marker the state passed weeks ago.

The Mississippi State Medical Association issued a statement Nov. 25 supporting physicians who have called on the governor to reinstate a statewide mask mandate.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted health care delivery at every level,” said Dr. Claude Brunson, the association director. “Our state’s health care system cannot continue to bear the overwhelming strain of the outbreak at its current state.”

From early August through late September, Reeves had an executive order requiring people in all parts of Mississippi to wear masks in public places. Since the order expired, the Republican governor has required masks in counties with the highest rates of virus transmission. By last week, he had a mask mandate in 54 of the 82 counties.

Dobbs, as head of the Health Department, works closely with the governor and has not publicly second-guessed Reeves on mask policies. During the news conference with Byers last week, Dobbs said: “I’m worried that the mask conversation is distracting from the real threat” — people carrying on with parties and other nonessential activities while the virus is rampant.


Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: