TUPELO • Gov. Tate Reeves is preparing to impose new restrictions – including a masking mandate on 13 counties containing almost half the state’s population – as Mississippi’s top medical leaders continue to warn that a gathering surge of COVID-19 is threatening the resources of the healthcare system.

In a Thursday afternoon press briefing, the first-term Republican governor said that, beginning Monday, he will by executive order require masking and limit social gatherings in the state’s hardest hit counties.

“Mississippi is in a fight for our lives,” Reeves said.

The order has not yet been fully drafted, so details of the coming regulations are not fully known. Reeves did say that he would not shut down businesses in those counties at this time or further restrict the operations of bars and restaurants. Statewide, bars and restaurants are already operating under some restrictions.

The counties targeted for additional restrictions will be Hinds, DeSoto Harrison, Rankin, Jackson, Washington, Sunflower, Grenada, Madison, Claiborne, Jefferson, Wayne and Quitman.

None of these counties are in Northeast Mississippi, though DeSoto and Grenada counties are near the region. The named counties include the state’s major population hubs, including the Jackson metropolitan area, the Gulf Coast and the Memphis, Tennessee-area suburbs in DeSoto County.

Reeves continues to resist a statewide masking order, though he has called for all Mississippians to voluntarily don a mask or face covering when in public places.

According to Reeves, he continues to prefer targeted executive action because he believes the “best way to manage the situation is to focus on those areas where the most transmission is occurring.”

Cities across Northeast Mississippi have imposed municipal-level masking orders, including the largest: Tupelo, Oxford, Columbus and Starkville.

New action by Reeves follows a recent decision by the Mississippi State Health Department to again limit certain elective surgeries. The Health Department has restricted elective surgeries that require an overnight stay in Hinds, Rankin, Madison, Forrest, Jones and Washington counties.

All these actions by state and local governments are happening as the specter of a hospital capacity crisis now looms in Mississippi.

Thursday morning, the State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said that as of Wednesday, five of Mississippi’s largest hospitals had no available ICU beds.

“Our biggest medical institutions have no room to take care of additional folks,” Dobbs said. “We’re sending people out of state all the time because Mississippi hospitals cannot take care of Mississippi people.”

Dobbs spoke Thursday morning at a gathering of medical professionals who sounded the alarm that the state’s COVID-19 infections rates have reached alarming levels.

LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, issued her own warning about hospital capacity.

“Many days, we have had more patients than we have had rooms, and we are holding patients in the emergency department,” Woodward said.

On Thursday, the Mississippi State Health Department reported 703 new COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths. The state also continues to post record numbers of hospitalizations, with the most recent data indicating that 686 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in the state.

That is more hospitalized COVID-19 patients than at any prior point since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com

Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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