COVID-19 Cases on the Rise Among White Mississippians

Just an hour south of Tupelo lies Mississippi State University, nestled near the town of Starkville, or what others call the “Golden Triangle.” David Buys, an assistant professor in the Department of Health at MSU, has watched the coronavirus pandemic escalate since March. He says that the rate of coronavirus cases has climbed in the last few months in his home of Mississippi.

When Governor Tate Reeves began to create a stay at home order for the state, coronavirus cases were already increasing. On April 1, a statewide stay at home order was enforced to decrease contamination, except for businesses and services deemed essential, which were many. Gov. Reeves enforced a mask mandate in May, which required everyone to wear a face mask in public when social distancing was not possible.

But many have said that Reeves was late to enforce policies and he relaxed his mandates too soon. Reeves lifted the mask mandate in September which didn’t help the new onslaught of cases that came in the Fall. Specifically, the race data has shown that coronavirus cases have increased among white communities, while the amount of cases has decreased among black communities.

Buys, the professor from MSU, says that the messaging from the state government could be one of the reasons that cases have increased. According to data published in November, this is the first time since June that the white community has exceeded the black community in coronavirus cases. Buys said this could be because of the political affiliations between white communities and the Republican government.

“I think the presidential campaign that has been so drawn on racial lines has emboldened white people to resist the precautions,” he said. “I think the federal government’s response has called into question the validity of science and the recommendations that have come forth from our public health and medical experts.”

Governor Reeves, a friend of Donald Trump’s and a first-term Republican, in March decided to wait and see how coronavirus would affect the state. He waited until April to declare stay at home orders, while local governors began restrictions as early as March 15. Reeves has continuously lifted state mandates since August and it has shown an uptick in cases.

Buys says that the number of cases will increase if Reeves doesn’t return the state back to a face mask mandate and create more social distancing restrictions.

“After the governor lifted the statewide mask mandate, and he has begun to implement pocket mandates depending on rates county by county. We know that people travel between counties, so they are going between counties and the public health opinion would be that the isolated mandates are not as effective as statewide mandates.”

Buys said that while he’s noticed an increase of mask-wearing and social distancing in black communities of Mississippi, the discretion among white communities has decreased, and this could be leading to the increase in cases. According to data released by Mississippi State University in November, the number of cases has increased much higher in the white community, up to 57,924 cases. While among African-Americans, the number of cases is about 50,535.

Anecdotally, Buys said that he’s noticed more white people attending schools in person, traveling out-of-state, and doing activities that are not safe according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There appear to be many more minority families that are taking advantage of virtual schooling options than those that are not.”

The reason for this, Buys said, could also be due to the fact that black communities were hit hard by COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, so there is a large increase in social distancing in this community. While white families, who have been notoriously Republican in the state, have leaned towards the information given by Governor Reeves and President Trump, which has led to confusion.

“White folks who were maybe more likely to be Trump supporters also bought the anti-science rhetoric that was coming from that administration.”

As you can see in this timeline, it shows that during the Summer the COVID-19 rate was higher in the Black communities than in white communities.

But starting in September, when Governor Reeves lifted the mask mandate, the cases among white populations started to increase. You can see in this data that by December 9, the amount of COVID-19 cases was higher in the white population.

But Yulanda Haddix, who is the local president of the Mississippi NAACP Chapter in Tupelo, said that the data is showing a skewed version of the real crisis. She said that she thinks that African-Americans are still being infected at a higher rate but it’s not being presented properly.

“COVID is not decreasing in the black community, it’s just not reported in the black community. We don’t go and get COVID tested, it’s not readily available,” she said. “We live in a rural community, most of us don’t have health insurance. When we get an illness we treat ourselves, and we aren’t going to the doctor unless we have to go. That’s why it’s not reported as much.”

She said that although the data says differently, she believes that the African-American community is getting hit much harder. She said that because of systemic issues in Mississippi, many black residents don’t have access to health insurance or testing clinics located near their homes.

Mississippi is one of the many states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid, which makes it less likely that low-income and minority families will have easy access to healthcare. This further widens the disparity in healthcare coverage and COVID-19 testing facilities.

“Because we don’t have the availability of health insurance, or primary care physicians, we are not going to be diagnosed. By holiday time, I think we are going to gather. All we have is family. I think it is more prevalent in our communities, we are just not being counted.”

But the data trends are still showing that white communities are increasing in COVID cases. According to data by the COVID Tracking Project, about 42% of coronavirus cases in Mississippi are African-American, while 48% are white. Even though the numbers show that coronavirus cases have increased among the white community, she said that COVID is disproportionately affecting the black community.

“In rural communities, or low-income or underserved, no one has three hours to get tested. And if you don’t have health insurance, most of the time you can’t get the test. Mississippi is the way it is because people allow it to be that way. The underserved continue to be underserved and the upper class is the upper class.”

While there are differences in the way that black and white communities are being affected, the data shows that coronavirus is affecting both communities at alarming rates. Some residents said that white residents don’t necessarily believe in the health consequences of COVID-19.

James Phillips, who said that many of his friends in Mississippi have contracted COVID-19, said that he thought the CDC guidelines are too restrictive and he thinks they are unnecessary. He said that he and his friends do not believe that coronavirus is as harmful as it’s portrayed on the media.

“It was a big fear factor, for the ones at first who got it. But then they would get better, it was killing other people but it wasn’t bad for them,” he said. “Everyone I talked to had the same story. None of the people I knew had it bad. I no longer fear it.”

Since Governor Reeves rescinded the mask mandate, many residents have felt that they can go outside freely without wearing masks. According to the Mississippi Free Press, this has been seen amongst white people. Phillips said that he is one of the residents who doesn’t believe in the mask guidelines.

“I don’t trust the guidelines. I have been without a mask since the pandemic started, except to get on a plane. I’ve had no problems.”

Instead of issuing a statewide mask mandate, Governor Reeves has only enforced masks by county. People are required to wear masks in the counties that have the highest number of cases. While Reeves said that people should be wearing masks, there is no statewide law enforcing it. The number of cases is increasing, and as of December 13, about 179,447 coronavirus cases have been recorded in Mississippi. Yet, many residents are still not wearing masks.

Ashton Pittman, a reporter for the Mississippi Free Press and a native Mississippian, said that he’s seen people inside grocery stores and shops disregarding the CDC guidelines.

“In some cases, people are defying the social distancing and defying masks to make a political statement,” he said. “I’ve seen Republican politicians who are speaking at anti-masking events, a lot of these are happening in Desoto County.”

He said that Governor Reeves has been confusing because he’s trying to please both sides of the political spectrum and he’s been acting too late.

“A lot of people aren’t taking him seriously. He’s not making anyone happy cause he’s trying to make everyone happy. There’s also a black and white split,” he said. “White people in Mississippi tend to believe Donald Trump, and he’s downplayed COVID-19. Black people don’t listen to Donald Trump, they tend to listen to the advice of medical experts.”

He also said that black people in Mississippi are being more careful because there were so many coronavirus related deaths early on in the pandemic.

“Black people in Mississippi are more likely to know someone who died early on in the pandemic. White people should be taking this more seriously, but the politics are overruling it.”

On Saturday in South Mississippi, the cases reached an all time high. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 2,665 new cases and 56 deaths as of Saturday.

There is a new mask mandate that was enforced on December 11, requiring all Mississipians in impacted counties to wear masks in public. But this does not require all residents to wear masks outside, and locals like James Phillips, are skeptical of the severity of the virus.

“I was very cautious at first…..I did not want my family to fall into those numbers. After doing my own research, I am okay with having it (coronavirus). I feel comfortable that if I get it, it won’t last more than a couple days.”

He says that he does not trust the guidelines put forth by the CDC and will not follow mask mandates unless he is traveling.