Mississippi, like the rest of the U.S., is facing a spike in COVID-19 cases. In the last few days, the state’s daily average case count passed 1,800, far higher than the previous peak during the summer.
But while the state had a mask mandate in place during August and September, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has resisted reinstating it for the current wave of cases.
Instead, he’s taking a county-by-county approach based on where case numbers are highest. Fifty-four of Mississippi’s 82 counties currently have mask mandates.
Dr. LouAnn Woodward, who heads Mississippi’s largest hospital, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says that approach isn’t working. In a letter on Nov. 24, Woodward and three other health care leaders in Mississippi called on the governor to implement a statewide mask mandate.
Reeves has defended the county-by-county approach, saying it’s more effective at getting the largest number of people in Mississippi to actually wear masks.
Woodward says she understands the governor’s position, and that a statewide mandate “doesn’t mean everybody is going to comply.”
“But I and other health care leaders in the state also feel like it really sends a message how serious this is and that this is an important step for everybody to take,” she tells All Things Considered, adding that it’s “not the only thing.”
In excerpts from her interview, Woodward explains why she thinks a statewide mandate is necessary and laments how the coronavirus pandemic has become politicized.
Why should a mask mandate be statewide?
I think because we’re seeing a lot of people who are going from one county to another on a daily basis, whether it’s because they work in an adjacent county, we’ve still got sports activities that are going on. People are traveling all around the state. So I think that that is just a measure that allows us as a state to all be on the same page. And you don’t have to know county by county whether there’s a mask mandate in place or not.
Mississippi’s state health officer, Thomas Dobbs, said that he is worried that the mask conversation is “distracting from the real threat,” [such as] people carrying on with parties and other nonessential activities while the virus is still rampant. What do you think of that?
I think there’s truth to that. I think it’s kind of a shame how political it has become about wearing a mask, not wearing a mask. And honestly, we should not have to have a mask mandate for people to do the right thing. But I think people have let down their guard and they’re fatigued. People are tired of the idea that the coronavirus and the pandemic is inhibiting the things that they want to do. People are tired of it. So honestly, if people would would just wear the mask and continue to be very careful and deliberate in activities, I don’t think we’d have to have this conversation.
When you say that so much of the coronavirus response has gotten so deeply political, do you think there’s any way to avoid that at this point?
On one hand, that would be very challenging because we are depending on elected officials to lead the way and to guide the way. So in reality, there’s probably no way to keep it from being political. But what I hate to see is that people have fallen out along party lines and have taken sort of antagonistic positions, which is so unfortunate because this virus certainly knows no political party.
Dave Blanchard and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio interview.