JACKSON, Miss. – At least eight Mississippi lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus after working several weeks in a Capitol where many people stood or sat close together and did not wear masks.
Among those who have publicly acknowledged having COVID-19 are Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the 52-member Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, who presides over that 122-member chamber.
The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Tuesday that there are also at least 11 other suspected cases of the virus among legislators and Capitol employees. In addition, Dobbs said the virus is spreading in social gatherings across the state. Dobbs said, for example, he was told about teenagers having a party on a Pearl River sandbar in Jackson during the July 4 weekend and about people going without masks in restaurants and other public settings.
“You can't put a lot of people together in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century and expect nothing bad to happen,” Dobbs said during a news conference. “It’s just absolutely an insane thought process.”
Mississippi legislators were at the Capitol for most of June and on July 1, wrapping up their annual session that was interrupted for several weeks by the pandemic.
Gunn, 57, announced Sunday that he had tested positive for the virus. Hosemann, 73, has informed members of the Senate he tested positive for the virus and “will follow State Health Department guidelines by self-quarantining and working at home,” his spokeswoman Leah Rupp Smith said Tuesday.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, 46, said Monday he was in isolation with his wife and their three daughters at the Governor's Mansion. They were tested for the coronavirus after he came into contact with a lawmaker who tested positive last week.
“My girls and I tested negative for COVID-19," Reeves wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "Limited contact with the people who were diagnosed, but better safe than sorry! If someone you know gets the virus, get a test!”
Reeves will follow social distancing guidelines and “will continue to reduce contact with others as dramatically as possible, while still completing his duties as governor,” his spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says even if people test negative for COVID-19 and feel healthy, they should remain in quarantine since symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure.
The Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — has had at least 32,214 confirmed cases and 1,158 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 957 confirmed cases and 44 deaths from numbers reported a day earlier; the latest count included 10 deaths between June 17 and June 28, with information from death certificates arriving later.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Dobbs said the rapid increase in cases is stressing the health care system, including emergency rooms.
“My greatest fear is starting to be realized because there are people in ERs now across the state who can't get a bed, they can’t get transferred where they need to go, and we’re sending them out of state," Dobbs said
Speaking of the Legislature, Dobbs said it's risky to have any group of people in close proximity for an extended time.
“We know they were very busy and doing some really important work over the past couple of weeks, but it’s going to be risk, especially if people don’t maintain that distancing and masks,” Dobbs said.
Gunn and Hosemann stood near Reeves and others last week as the governor signed a bill retiring Mississippi's 126-year-old state flag that had the Confederate battle emblem. None wore masks.
Democratic Rep. Bo Brown of Jackson announced last week that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Republican Rep. Greg Haney of Gulfport announced Tuesday that he has the virus.
“We don’t know where we got it,” Haney told The Associated Press. "We had to eat out, so we could have got it from a waitress, waiter, you know, you can’t wear your mask while you eat.”
The Health Department had free drive-thru COVID-19 testing Monday for legislators and others who work in the Capitol. Dobbs said 270 were tested.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.