Years from now, when the purifying effect of time allows us to take a dispassionate view of the COVID-19 crisis, we will ask why it was that Mississippi suffered so badly from the pandemic relative to other states.
As of this week, 12,368 Mississippians have died from COVID-19 since the first recorded death in the state almost two years ago today. Our state has the highest per-capita COVID death rate in the nation. Almost 800,000 Mississippians — nearly a quarter of the population — contracted COVID-19 over that two-year span. The state’s vaccination rate is among the lowest in the nation as well.
There is likely no one reason for our state’s poor performance, but rather a combination of factors, including ineffective inconsistent messaging and policy decisions made by our state’s leaders, most notably Gov. Tate Reeves. Mississippi was the last state to require state-wide mask wearing in public places and the first state to drop those requirements. Throughout the pandemic, Reeves’ wishy-washy leadership, heavily influenced by political calculations, undermined public safety.
Yet there is one person in a state leadership position who certainly prevented Mississippi’s COVID metrics from being worse than they were and consistently provided clear messaging when other leaders seemed less certain.
On Tuesday, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s State Health Officer, spoke at Columbus Rotary Club as part of an unofficial farewell tour. Dobbs announced earlier this month that he will resign from the role in July and return to private practice after 12 years with the state health department and four years as the state’s “top doc.”
Normally, the state health officer is not a household name. It’s doubtful that anyone can remember who preceded Dobbs in the position.
Dobbs will be remembered, though, and in a positive light.
From the start of the pandemic, Dobbs, who previously served as the state epidemiologist, provided Mississippians with consistent, fact-based information. He was a strong advocate of masking, social distancing and vaccination throughout the pandemic, despite political winds shifting against these protection measures. Even when confronted with conspiracy theories and death threats, Dobbs continued to provide fact-based information and guidance on how Mississippians could stay safe.
Under Dobbs’ leadership, the pandemic-related recommendations from MSDH often mirrored those from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, even when those recommendations were in conflict with the rhetoric or executive orders from Reeves.
The state would have fared far better if more people had listened to Dobbs than the Governor.
Dobbs was also vital in confronting the logistical challenges the pandemic presented, sounding the alarm when hospital equipment, ICU beds and nursing shortages approached critical levels.
When it became clear Black Mississippians were getting fewer COVID-19 vaccines than white Mississippians, Dobbs spoke publicly about the disparity and made vaccine equity a top strategic priority at MSDH.
In press conferences, his message to Mississippians was clear.
When interviewed by national media, he comported himself well and spoke with modest authority. That can’t always be claimed about our state leaders.
Mississippi was fortunate to have Dobbs in such a key position during the pandemic.
He deserves our respect and appreciation for a job well done under extremely difficult circumstances.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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