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State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, right, answers a reporter's question during a COVID-19 briefing in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, April 2, 2020. Dobbs and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Greg Michel, left, attended a news conference where Gov. Tate Reeves, center updated the media as to the state's response to the pandemic and he discussed aspects of his latest executive order. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi withholds some health prep info about virus

Mississippi residents are unlikely to find out how many ventilators are available in the state to respond to the coronavirus pandemic because the Health Department is withholding that information.

The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said this week that Mississippi has plenty of ventilators available, but officials are concerned about the demand increasing in coming weeks as more people test positive for the highly contagious virus. He said the numbers for ventilators that are available or are in use can change quickly.

“People would freak out if they were looking and seeing, oh, it’s gone up 10% or down 10%. So, it’s such a dynamic number that we don’t publish it,” Dobbs said Wednesday.

During another news conference Thursday, Dobbs said some ventilators are more powerful than others, and he does not want to release numbers of machines because that could be “misleading.”

The state Health Department on Thursday updated Mississippi’s confirmed coronavirus caseload to at least 1,177 people and 26 deaths. Gov. Tate Reeves said more than 16,600 coronavirus tests have been done in Mississippi, a state with a population of about 3 million.

Many people moving around their communities may not know they have contracted the virus until well after they’ve infected others. Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction suffering more severe illnesses can require ventilators to survive, and as the caseload rapidly grows, hospitals are bracing for a wave of patients.

Reeves said people at Mississippi State University are converting 500 battery-operated ventilators so the machines can be plugged into an electrical socket to have a steadier source of power, and those should be available next week.

The Health Department said the virus has been found in at least 22 nursing homes, but it is not releasing the names of the homes. Dobbs said people who work in the homes or have loved ones there are being notified.

The Associated Press submitted a public records request to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency on March 25, seeking information about coronavirus testing kits or testing supplies and all medical supplies, including personal protection equipment, ordered by the state, including names of vendors and prices paid.

State law says agencies usually have seven working days to respond to records requests. MEMA said Thursday that the timeline does not apply because the state emergency operations center has been activated. The agency said all requests for public records “will be handled after the agency has returned to normal operation status.”

MEMA director Greg Michel said in a news conference Thursday that the state in the past day had received 18,000 surgical masks, 25,000 medical masks that are more protective, 10,000 protective suits for health care workers, 2,500 bottles of hand sanitizer for first responders and 15,000 test tubes to use in testing. He did not say how much the state had paid or indicate how much of the immediate need those items will cover.

Reeves announced Wednesday that he is ordering people statewide to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus. The order takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday and last until 8 a.m. April 20. Reeves said his order is designed to prevent Mississippi’s health care system from becoming overwhelmed.

The governor said Thursday that gun stores are considered essential businesses and will be allowed to remain open during his stay-home order. He said law enforcement officers have been told to break up groups of 10 or more people gathering in public spaces such as beaches. But, Reeves also said people may still go fishing if they can maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet (2 meters) from people who don’t live in their homes.

Applications for unemployment benefits submitted in Mississippi rose to 30,946 during the week ending March 28, according to a release Thursday from the U.S. Employment and Training Administration. Reeves said that is about 30 times more applications than the state usually weekly saw before the pandemic.

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