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Why Mississippi’s top health official is warning against in-person school

Mississippi is a coronavirus hot spot, with confirmed cases per 100,000 residents and positive test rates among the highest in the U.S. The state is seeing increased hospitalizations and deaths, too, at a time when schools are beginning the academic year. William Brangham talks to Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s state health officer, about high levels of community spread and how to reduce them.

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  • William Brangham:

    Speaking of schools and difficult decisions, we wanted to widen our focus to look at another state that is also dealing with a very serious outbreak.

    Mississippi is one of the nation's worst hot spots, and has been for several weeks. It is among the worst in the country when it comes to confirmed cases per 100,000 people. And it has very high positive test rates. Hospitalizations and deaths are also up.

    Two days ago, Governor Tate Reeves issued a statewide mandate on wearing masks in public places.

    I'm joined now by Dr. Thomas Dobbs. He is Mississippi's chief health officer.

    Dr. Dobbs, thank you very much for being here.

    We just heard from the superintendent in Indianapolis about the difficulty they're happening, opening schools.

    I know a few days ago you said that you were urging Mississippi schools not to open, and you said cases would soar even more if they did.

    How did that message go over?

  • Thomas Dobbs:

    You know, I think it went over well.

    I think it does reflect a lot of people's concern in our state about opening schools in the context of having such high community transmission. It's not something that other countries have done or other places have really tried to open up schools, in-person classes, and certainly not full-on traditional school, in the setting of so many kids who are going to have it coming in.

    And we have learned pretty quickly. We do have a school system in North Mississippi, in Corinth, Mississippi, that has a really good plan. They do have online options.

    But I think 80, 85 percent of the kids were coming in-person. And White House the first week or so, we had eight cases.

    Now, it's not eight cases that were transmitted amongst kids or the teenagers that were at the school. But there's just so much out there in the community. When you bring these folks in, they're just going to bring it in with them.

  • William Brangham:

    And I know that the governor had said that he would close or ask schools in certain particular hot spots in Mississippi to close, but didn't want to try to ask them statewide to do the same.

    Do you wish he had taken your advice on that and just asked all schools to go remote initially?

  • Thomas Dobbs:

    You know, in Mississippi, we do defer a lot of authority to the local school districts like some states.

    But we have spoken with the different school boards across the state. I personally recommended that they delay in-person school opening. And we will be sending out additional conversations with them to try to make sure that they understand that we feel strongly that they need to delay school opening, if possible.

  • William Brangham:

    As we are learning more and more about this virus and how it spreads, it certainly seems that indoor close contact between individuals is how this virus gets around.

    That's bars, restaurants, gyms, any time people congregate inside, a lot of which are open in Mississippi still. Why are those places — given what we know now, why are those places still open in your state?

  • Thomas Dobbs:

    With the bars, essentially, you can only serve drink in a restaurant style, where people are sitting down. We do have a reduced capacity at 15 — at 50 percent. So, might could be lower, but that's kind of where we are.

    But, to be honest, when we investigate the cases — and I have been investigating some personally to have that sort of — that personal sort of conversation with people to see where they're getting it, mostly, where people are getting coronavirus are at social events that fall outside of the public sphere.

    It's going to be a wedding shower. It's going to be a birthday party for 15 people. It's going to be a funeral. It's going to be a few people went out for drinks, or — and the big one we're seeing are family get-togethers among extended families. Say, cousins are in town, or so and so came in from out of town, and the extended family gets together.

    When people let their guard down in these social circumstances, indoors and outdoors — we do have a lot of transmission outdoors too — where we see our greatest vulnerability.

  • William Brangham:

    We have also heard a good deal of concern about hospitals being able to take care of a surge in cases.

    How are the hospitals doing in Mississippi and the ICUs? Are you guys doing OK so far?

  • Thomas Dobbs:

    Well, it's a stress. It's been very difficult to maintain the capacity.

    We have been working very closely with our health systems, and they have really done a fantastic job of surging up and basically creating new intensive care space. We have almost 400 COVID patients in intensive care in Mississippi. And this is in the context of a health system that had very little flexibility or surge capacity in hospital space anyway.

    So they have done really a great job. But we're really sort of hitting up at the brim. We really need the community to focus on limiting transmission, not doing those things that we know will spread disease. We're very excited to have a statewide mask mandate.

    We do notice, as public health folks, more compliance. But it's going to take some sustained, focused compliance with these simple measures that we know will work, you know, space, a mask, and small groups or no groups, and — before we're really going to have any relief.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer of Mississippi, thank you very much, and good luck out there.

  • Thomas Dobbs:

    Thank you for having me.

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