AMORY • Monroe County reported Northeast Mississippi’s first identified case of COVID-19 in mid-March, but not till about two weeks ago did the county’s total case count begin to soar well above its regional neighbors.
As of Friday, testing had identified 161 cases of COVID-19 in Monroe County. That’s the highest number of known cases in any Northeast Mississippi county. Lafayette County has the second highest case count in the region as of Friday, with 89 known cases.
A little more than half of the county’s cases – 84 – are linked to long-term care facilities, specifically Diversicare of Amory and River Place Nursing Center. Care Center of Aberdeen Director of Nursing Carol Sweeney confirmed Friday two employees who work in housekeeping tested positive.
“No resident has a positive case,” she said. “We have two employees who are positive with no signs or symptoms. They work in housekeeping, and that is a different building outside of our facility. They work in laundry. They weren’t around anyone who would pose a threat.”
Sweeney added the two employees have been gone from work for seven days.
Outside of long-term care facilities, Monroe County Emergency Management Agency Director Donna Sanderson said she has not identified any particular common links that might explain the surge in cases Monroe County has seen since mid-April.
Sanderson also said COVID-19 cases are evenly distributed throughout the county.
Monroe County’s first report of a positive COVID-19 test came on March 16. The case count grew gradually for about a month, with each day of reporting by the Mississippi State Department of Health bringing only one or two at a time.
However, Monroe County followed Mississippi’s trend of a significant spike in mid-April. On April 15, both experienced what was at the time their biggest one-day increases.
Mississippi reported 273 new cases that day, and Monroe County had eight. Monroe County tied with Lee County that day for the highest number of county-level cases in the region.
Since, cases have climbed steadily in Monroe County, only slowing in recent days. The county’s biggest one day spike thus far occurred April 21 with 20 new positive tests reported that day.
As of Friday morning, Monroe County’s total number of COVID-19 deaths totaled 17, according to Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley, with all but two of them linked to long-term care facilities. The youngest person to die in the county so far was 60, and the oldest person was 92.
The vast majority of the cases at long-term care facilities all had other chronic medical conditions.
“This is happening in other states. No matter how hard the long-term care facilities tried to keep it out, we’ve had two that it did get in,” Gurley said. “That’s why our numbers are so high as far as deaths. If you took out the nursing home deaths, you’d be right in line with the counties around us.”
He and Sanderson have worked together with the long-term care facilities to maintain safety to the public when residents pass away and are transported to funeral homes.
Gurley noted the state-issued handbook for coroners requires the involvement of coroners when a death may be linked to a virulent or contagious disease that may constitute a public hazard.
“COVID-19 falls under cases that are to be reported to the coroner,” he said. “We were told in the beginning all people who test positive for COVID-19, that was to be put on the death certificate in the top four lines. Even if the person had serious other medical conditions, it should definitely be listed as a contributing factor.”
He added coroners have been advised by doctors as to the cause of death.
All death certificates are electronically sent to funeral homes and the state department of vital records, which operates under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Monroe County coroner emphasized the role of coroners in reporting deaths involving COVID-19, particularly given the idea among some skeptics that hospitals are padding the death count of the disease.
“The rumors out there that everyone dying is dying of COVID because hospitals are getting more government funding, that’s certainly out there,” Gurley said. “I don’t know anything about that. My office certainly isn’t getting any more government funding.”
Gurley’s message to people with loved ones at nursing homes is to have patience in the face of visitation restriction.
“We’ve got to get this cleared up at our long-term care facilities. They’re operating under health department guidelines right now,” Gurley said.
Officials at long-term care facilities said health agency guidelines are being followed to address the cases.
“We do have confirmed cases and are in close communication with local and state health officials, as well as CMS and CDC, to ensure we are taking the appropriate steps at this time to make sure our staff and residents are following the recommended preventative actions,” said River Place Nursing Center Administrator Nikki Williams.
The Mississippi State Health Department reported Monroe County’s first positive case at a long-term care center April 3, with its second reported April 6.
Diversicare Chief Operating Officer Becky Bodie would not take questions and instead referred to a statement appearing on the corporation’s website.
According to the statement, Diversicare’s infection control procedures are in compliance with the CDC and Mississippi State Department of Health guidelines, and nursing staff is educated and understands the healthcare protocols for the COVID-19 quarantine and all emergency situations.
According to the statement, “We have been in touch with Dr. Byers and his team at the Mississippi Department of Health, as well as officials at the CDC. We are working closely with public health officials to address the situation and are grateful for their assistance. We have been in touch with the loved ones of all those who have been impacted, and will continue to do so on a regular basis.”
Since it began COVID-19 testing in mid-March, Monroe Regional Hospital has administered an average of 75 tests per week, with 15 to 20 percent coming back positive, resulting in one hospitalization and daily telehealth follow-ups with a small number of patients who refused hospital stays.
Lisa Mason is a nurse practitioner at Monroe Regional Hospital. Several of her patients who have tested positive have been in the early 20s to 40s age range, and she said they’ve been successful in recovering.
“The public needs to understand what we’re seeing is, in some people, it can get severe, but even though our numbers are high here, the majority of our patients have done really, really well. I’ve told most of them who have tears running down their faces, ‘Don’t worry, you’re healthy.’ I’ve told them, ‘You’re going to feel like the flu times two,’” she said.
Mason has had one 6-month-old child who tested positive. She added tests are 80 percent accurate and thinks the clinic providers have witnessed several false-negative cases.
Approximately 50 people were tested through a free one-day coronavirus test at Access Family Health Services in Smithville last week.
“I don’t know if that’s an indication that people are to the point that they really don’t want to know and want to get back to life as normal. I know there’s still concern with people,” said Access Family Health Services Executive Director Marilyn Sumerford, adding a variety of people were tested including health care workers and others who know people who have tested positive.
There will be another free one-day drive-thru testing at Access’ Nettleton clinic May 7.
“I think there’s a little more of a calmness. I think as people become more familiar with people they know that have had it, it can work either way. If they know somebody who has been really sick or died, then they’re probably more afraid. If they know somebody that had very mild symptoms, they may be less cautious and not really that afraid,” Sumerford said.
Mason urged people to follow CDC guidelines such as good hygiene, proper hand washing and not touching your face. She added that it’s safer for people to not wear gloves.
Students out of school congregating and going to their grandparents can be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. Mason’s biggest advice to younger people is to stay away from older people who are more at risk of contracting the virus.
Sumerford warned people to prepare for the long haul.
“Everyone wants a pill and a quick fix, but I think the most important thing we can do are those things we’ve been told since the very beginning. We get bored with it and careless, but it’s still the most important thing we can do,” Sumerford said. “I think it’s time to think about what the new norm is going to be and keep practicing good habits [such as hand washing] that will help protect against not just coronavirus but cold and flu too.”