As Gov. Tate Reeves rolls back mask mandates and allows businesses to fully reopen, Tupelo health officials are encouraging residents to remain vigilant.
Reeves lifted all county mask mandates and allowed businesses to return to full capacity without any state-imposed rules starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, citing plummeting hospitalizations and drastically falling COVID-19 case numbers.
David Wilson, president of North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, said that while the governor is correct about numbers declining, he is concerned that without a mandate the number of new cases will increase.
“I do believe, given it’s not required, we will see far fewer people wearing a mask,” Wilson said.
He said the North Mississippi Health Services system will continue to adhere to Mississippi State Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and “will continue to require appropriate wearing of masks at all times” in its facilities with no plans to change or relax that position.
“Everybody’s worried about another surge and no doubt, the lack of masks will potentially contribute to another surge,” Wilson said. “We certainly would have preferred that the masking mandate stayed in place.”
Wilson feels most businesses, including restaurants, have done a good job with social distancing and managing themselves during a pandemic, “which has brought us to this trough and not to a peak,” he said.
In short, masks have been proven to work, Wilson said.
“Given that people have been more compliant in wearing masks throughout the state of Mississippi, we’ve seen the number of hospitalized COVID patients decrease to a low that we would have to go back probably at least 10 months ago to see,” Wilson said. “That didn’t happen by accident, and I would say that it didn’t happen due to vaccinations. It happened due to proper hand hygiene. It happened because of social distancing and has happened because we’ve been wearing masks.”
The biggest lapses in compliance in the three key areas – wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands often – tend to happen around holidays.
Dr. Jeremy Blanchard, the Chief Medical Officer of North Mississippi Health Services (NMHS), said that while health officials have had a hard time predicting when surges will occur, they are associated with times when people seem to drop their guard.
“That could be everything from decreasing social distancing, gathering indoors, such as Christmas, or not masking, such as early on during social gatherings where masks were not as common,” Blanchard said.
With spring break coming up in mid-March, Wilson said Mississippians have to remember that “the governor’s mandate has gone away, but it has not barred anyone from continuing to use common sense.”
“Common sense tells us right now that we should not stop wearing a mask. If you’re going on spring break, clearly I would advise you to continue to wash your hands, social distance and wear a mask,” Wilson said. “Even though that mask mandate is not there, there’s no reason you can’t wear a mask. It’s fairly basic.”
As the state’s masking and social distancing orders expire, instituting mask mandates has been left up to each municipality.
City leaders in Tupelo currently have no plans to impose a local mask mandate for the entire city, but Mayor Jason Shelton is expected to issue a local order requiring people to wear masks inside of city-owned buildings, such as City Hall.
Don Lewis, Tupelo’s chief operations officer, said the mayor sent an email on Tuesday evening to members of the city council and leaders of city departments informing them that masks are still required inside government buildings.
Blanchard said he has conversations with many different groups in the area, but “what we never do is advise them.” Instead, NMHS shares its own practices.
A list of “NMHS Safety Practices” reiterating the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and hand hygiene have been sent to the mayor and his office although Blanchard said he has not spoken to Shelton since Reeves’ new order took effect.
The simple steps they listed have been used to create an “incredibly safe environment” within NMHS institutions, according to Blanchard.
“We’re in a time where our relationship with each other as individuals and human beings is more important than it’s ever been because if we can be respectful of each other, be kind to each other and listen, understand and not reply, then what comes out of that is a conversation that allows us each to protect each other,” Blanchard said.
Taylor Vance contributed to this report.