JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Less than a week after Mississippi became the first state nationwide to let its mask mandate expire, the Mississippi State Department of Health reports a surge in coronavirus cases not seen in seven weeks.
Late Tuesday night, MSDH confirmed 975 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily number reported since August 19.
The spike pushed Mississippi’s seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases to more than 577, causing a graph that had remained relatively flat for most of September to begin trending upward.
“That moving average, that makes us very concerned. As to whether or not this correlates directly with the recent lifting of the mask mandate, it may be, but there’s not quite enough time necessarily for that to be baked in," said Dr. Mark Horne, who serves as president of the Mississippi State Medical Association.
MSDH spokesperson Liz Sharlot said the increase in Tuesday’s cases came from reporting delays that were not the agency’s fault.
“Numbers will always be higher in the beginning of the week,” Sharlot said in an email response to questions for State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs. “We had one lab send in a week’s worth of tests. Those numbers don’t indicate anything on a daily basis; it’s just when test results come in.”
For weeks, Dobbs himself told reporters at COVID-19 briefings that a better indicator of case spread and infection comes from another graph on MSDH’s website, which tracks the date of onset of COVID-19 illness.
It’s considered a more reliable source because it indicates the actual date a person began noticing symptoms.
That graph also showed a spike in cases: 736 Mississippians reported COVID-19 symptoms on Monday, the highest number since August 31, a statistics that would not have been affected by a lab reporting late results.
When asked whether Tuesday’s increase in cases was entirely from reporting delays, Sharlot declined to answer, instead saying causation between the ending of the mask mandate and the surge in numbers can’t be established.
“We are always worried about increasing cases and are certainly carefully watching them,” Sharlot wrote.
She also pointed to the unreliability of looking at one day’s worth of data, deferring to long-term trends as a better representation of how the virus is impacting Mississippians.
Horne agrees with that, but also believes people have COVID-19 fatique: they’re tired of going through the same preventative steps.
“It’s a bit like you’ve gone camping and you’ve had a campfire and you’ve got those glowing embers, and they tell you to watch them for a long time and to really make sure they’re out," Horne said. "Well, the glowing embers of COVID-19 pandemic are not over. It’s not even close. It’s smoldered for several weeks on us, but it’s getting ready to flame up and really hurt us if we don’t keep an eye on it.”
Horne said the best way to protect yourself is by washing hands, masking up and avoiding large crowds or groups if you don’t really need to be there.
More recently, Ag Commissioner Andy Gipson -- who’s not requiring masks at this year’s state’s fair -- said the decision amounts to a personal choice.
Horne had a different take.
“I view it as a personal responsibility. It’s a responsibility that I have to my patients, that I’m not going to spread this to them," Horne said. "If I happen to have it and don’t know it, it’s the responsibility I have to my coworkers, it’s the responsibility I have to my family, to prevent the spread. We all have some common responsibilities as citizens.”
One of those citizens, Jackson resident Barbara Turner, works in respiratory therapy. She said she’s disheartened by what she’s seen in the days since the mask mandate expired.
“Less people are wearing their masks, which is not a good thing. Even though the mandate is lifted, there is nothing that is in place to take care of the virus if you get it," Turner said. "I noticed that people, unless it affects them directly, they don’t understand what it means to keep your mask on.”