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Mask mandates reach Northeast Miss.

A state-ordered mask mandate spread into some Northeast Mississippi counties on Thursday as the state continues to target new hotspots for COVID-19.

Going into effect on Monday, the new executive order from Gov. Tate Reeves adds eight more counties, including Lee County and Pontotoc County, to those where the wearing of a mask in public is required. The criteria is either 200 cases in a two-week period or more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents.

Alcorn County is not included, although some stores are requiring masks.

The governor is also extending the Safe Return order to Aug. 17.

The orders came on a day in which the state again set a new record for new reported positive COVID-19 cases – 1,775, with 48 additional deaths.

Dr. Paul Byers, state epidemiologist, said the hospitalization numbers are “astoundingly high,” with 972 positive COVID-19 cases hospitalized across the state.

“The overwhelming of our health care systems will affect everybody,” Reeves said during Thursday’s briefing. “If you get in a car wreck, you don’t want to be treated in a tent like we saw in other parts of the world and, in fact, like we saw in other parts of the country. You want to get the best possible care.”

Byers said health officials are seeing transmission within nuclear families and “a lot of transmission that’s occurring just from interacting with that family member that you don’t see very often or interacting with folks and family members at gatherings like funerals. We’re at a point where we need to act as if every single person we come in contact with has COVID.”

Earlier in the week, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs encouraged people to “please stay away from your extended family” and “lay low for a while.”

Reeves said the state is seeing early signs that citizens’ efforts are working.

“You have the power to save lives or, conversely, you have the power to cost lives,” he said.


News
top story
Too Soon?
Gov weighs statewide mandate on school start; Corinth School District becomes model for reopening

Gov. Tate Reeves, the only official who can issue a statewide mandate that postpones school or forces virtual learning, finds himself in a tough political position as schools across the state are just days from resuming in-person instruction.

As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are skyrocketing in Mississippi, many parents and teachers are rallying across the state and asking Reeves to postpone the start of school. They say already cash-strapped school districts can’t handle the demands of virus preparation and warn that students, teachers and staff will suffer.

Meanwhile, many parents are worried about how they’ll keep their jobs or handle childcare if their kids don’t start school on time. Parents and teachers alike express deep concern over students’ wellbeing if they miss school and in-person interaction in a rural state where many districts lack the ability to provide adequate distance learning.

The state’s 138 districts have been asked to decide for themselves when and how to reopen, and they face a Friday deadline to submit their plans to the state.

For now, Reeves is holding off on any statewide edicts about public school operations as most schools are set to return to the classroom the first full week of August.

“It has long been the view of Mississippians that we want local control of education,” Reeves said this week.

Though he has made clear he expects schools to reopen soon and to provide in-person classes, Reeves said he will review the districts’ plans carefully and decide if any statewide mandates for schools are required.

“It’s not something I want to do, and it’s not something I can tell you with certainty I will have to do,” Reeves said. “… Those of you who have watched me over the last 16 or 17 years will know that I am not scared to make a decision.”

No matter his decision, Reeves will face criticism.

Some advocates and educators have called on Reeves or the Mississippi Department of Education to provide more leadership on the issue. MDE says neither the department of State Board of Education has the authority to delay school reopening or mandate any closures. Reeves, who has broad emergency authority, said he wants to leave it to local school districts if possible.

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said that while schools face an unprecedented challenge, “our state’s leaders are nowhere to be found.”

“There’s no standardized guidance,” Jones said. “There is no mask mandate in schools. There is no plan in place to support districts who lack the resources to have an effective distance-learning model. Teachers are being asked to sanitize their own classrooms. And educators across the state are terrified to go back into schools, afraid for their own health and the health of their families and their students.”

The Mississippi State Medical Association and state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians have called for the state to not reopen classrooms until pandemic cases are on a “downward trajectory,” which does not appear to be in the offing any time soon. They urged a delay until at least Sept. 1, and called for a mask mandate for everyone in schools.

But Reeves indicated the state is not likely to waive the “180-day rule,” a state law that requires schools to provide at least 180 days of instruction each year by June 30. And, he said, those schools contemplating 100 percent virtual classes “are ignoring the reality that we are going to have testing that occurs in the 2020-2021 school year.”

All states are struggling with similar questions and debate over school restart. State plans are mixed, with some having strict statewide mandates and others allowing local decisions as Reeves wants to do.

In Alabama, the state’s superintendent has urged all schools to reopen on regular schedule, but individual districts will ultimately decide. Arkansas’ governor has called for in-person classes to open in the fall, but urged schools to be ready with virtual classes as well. Florida’s top education official issued an order for all schools to reopen and provide normal services. Many states are still trying to figure it out.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs this week was asked if the Mississippi Health Department could provide schools COVID-19 case metrics for when it’s safe to reopen, when to close buildings and teach remotely.

“There’s not an easy answer,” said Dobbs, “not a specific number.”

Dobbs noted that given the current trajectory of the virus in Mississippi, school reopenings may be short lived.

“There may be some schools that have to close pretty quickly after they open,” Dobbs said. “It just depends on if there are outbreaks.”

He said that what appears to be less transmission among younger children and experience from day cares shows some promise, particularly for younger grades.

“We never closed down the day cares,” Dobbs said. “I’m not saying we never saw cases in day cares, but there were no major outbreaks.”

Reeves last week vowed: “I am going to do what I think is best for kids, and let the politics play out however they play out.”

As to criticism about the state not providing standardized rules and mandates for school reopenings so far, Reeves said: “Many of these are the same people who for years said stay away from them and stay out of their business.”

“Now they are calling me, asking, ‘Hey, will you please make these decisions for us?’,” Reeves said.

Still, the political rhetoric hasn’t eased the concerns of many educators across the state.

“Make no mistake: Schools will eventually close,” Jones said. “It can happen safely now, with a comprehensive plan in place, or it can happen when the first outbreak happens, or when the unthinkable happens and we lose a member of a school community. This is quite literally an issue of life or death, and the ripple effects of this absence of leadership will be felt far beyond the confines of a school building.”

A model for reopening?

The Corinth School District, known for innovation and its “year-’round” school schedule, has already reopened on its normal start date, July 27. Reeves said he will be watching Corinth schools closely over the next few weeks to see if the district offers lessons that can be applied statewide.

Corinth is offering in-person school, with optional virtual classes. Superintendent Lee Childress said he expects about 13 percent to 18 percent of parents will have chosen virtual teaching for their kids this fall.

Children and school staff in Corinth each morning walk through thermal temperature scanners set up at strategic locations so everyone is checked. Many are checked again during the school day. So far, Childress said after the first couple of days, no one had an elevated temperature or symptoms.

Corinth schools are requiring face masks, and providing them to students and staff. All students have to wear them as they are transported to and from school and moving within buildings. For pre-K through third grades, masks are not required during instruction – although many are still wearing them – but teachers are working to maintain social distancing. For grades four through 12, students are required to wear masks all day unless there is a setting allows them to maintain social distancing.

Hand sanitizer is available throughout the schools, classrooms and other spaces are being reconfigured for distancing students and teachers are disinfecting classrooms at the end of each day, among many other safety protocols, Childress said. Meals are being eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias.

If a teacher or student comes down with COVID-19, Childress said, the district has plans in place, including contact tracing and notification of anyone potentially exposed. Childress said a positive case would not necessarily mean whole classes or grades being dismissed and quarantined.

“It will depend on the circumstances,” said Childress, who added that the Health Department has given schools guidance, provided published guidelines, webinars and video conferences for school leaders.

Childress said he, his school board and staff have worked diligently on reopening plans and safety protocols since the pandemic hit Mississippi in March. He said his district involved the community in the decisions and he has kept them informed of the plans with regular Facebook live chats. He said MDE and the Health Department offered guidance and assistance, and he had no criticism of lack of state mandates or leadership.

“Ultimately, when it gets down to making those decisions – when to reopen, what strategy will be in place – that is a local school decision and should be left up to the local school district board,” Childress said. “… A school is a reflection of its community. Every community is facing a different situation, different transmission rates … Those different things should allow for the flexibility for you to make the decisions for what is best for your districts.”

As for pushing school start dates back much further this year, Childress said, “I think whether you open in July or August or September or October, we’re still going to have to deal with it.”

The virtual approach

Last week, Jackson Public Schools, the second largest school district in the state, announced it would provide completely virtual learning in the fall. When asked about Jackson Public Schools plan to reopen with online-only teaching, Reeves said he didn’t want to discuss a specific district’s plan yet but doubts some schools have the ability to provide an adequate education with distance learning only.

Of the school districts that have made their reopening plans public so far, most appear to be opting for in-person schooling, at least as an option.

Reeves said he has reviewed some districts’ plans and, “Some of them look very good, and some do not.” He said he expects to make a decision late this week or early next on any state intervention or mandates.

Reeves has urged school leaders to “think outside the box,” and be innovative with reopening plans.

Maurice Smith, superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District, said his district is “going all virtual.”

“We’re going to open August 20, but that is subject to change and we will reevaluate where we are depending on the number of cases coming out of Bolivar County,” Smith said. “We chose the virtual route because of concern for our students and staff. About a week ago Bolivar county was added to a list of counties that had a high coronavirus positive rate. So for those reasons, we felt like it was the prudent choice.”

Smith said he’s glad his school board had autonomy to decide what’s best locally.

“I would have preferred that the state would have been a little more helpful with guidance as it relates to receiving funding and timely order of electronic devices,” Smith said.

Reeves said Mississippi schools are receiving a total of “half a billion dollars” in federal funds through the CARES Act and other measures to defray pandemic costs. He said that after conversations with the vice president and others in Washington this week, he expects a fourth round of federal funding will include “a significant portion” for school restart expenses.

Childress said purchasing personal protection equipment and making changes has not caused his district any financial hardship so far, and that federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding has helped cover expenses.

But some are concerned that poorer districts, already struggling financially, will have a tougher time coping with reopening safely.

“I don’t anticipate a problem there,” Reeves said. “Will there be challenges? Yes. I don’t want to minimize those, but I don’t think they will be financial in nature.”


News
Entrepreneur Dye coming to Corinth Saturday

Northeast Mississippi native, self-made entrepreneur and renaissance man Terrance Dye will make a special appearance in Corinth.

A Nashville, Tenn. resident for the past 15 years, the 38-year-old Dye is originally from New Albany but graduated from Booneville High School in 2000. He is a true modern-day man of many talents, including author, motivational speaker, model and fashion consultant who was most recently inducted into the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany.

Dye will be at the Black History Museum of Corinth for a book signing from 2-3 p.m. on Saturday. The event was originally scheduled from 1-4 p.m., but due to the pandemic, has been shortened to a one-hour frame and will be conducted outside on the museum lawn. Masks are required.

“This will be my first time appearing in Corinth and I feel very blessed to be able to come back to my home area,” said the self-made Dye.

Dye has authored, and self-published, five books which brought him national recognition from the newspaper, radio and news industry.

“I will be bringing with me a group of books that were pre-ordered but I will also have for purchase my latest book ‘The Awakening, Volume One’ which is my first African American literature book of poems and short stories,” said Dye. “I will also be bringing my best-seller ‘My conversation with God’ that I have been touring the country with.”

Dye has won numerous awards for his writing talents. For instance he is among the Who’s Who In Poetry, has received the Editor’s Choice Award and Shakespeare Trophy Of Excellence. Dye’s works have been published in several anthologies which earned him the Noble House Label Pen.

He also has made guest appearances on the Dr. Bobby Jones Gospel broadcast on BET and the Impact Network. In addition, Dye was among the first African Americans to be feature interviewed on the famous Grand Ole Opry 650 WSM radio.

But his talents and awards don’t stop there.

Dye has hosted his own open-mic and talent shows which give local talent a stage on which to perform and be recognized. Over the years he has discovered and booked some impressive talent – varying from hip-hop producers to R&B singers – for music shows all across the country with much success.

The multi-dimensional Dye has also worked for luxury fashion retail companies such as Nordstrom, Brooks Brothers and Johnson And Murphy, using his retail career to fund his dreams with little outside help.

“I used to believe I grew up poor,” he said, “but if I could emphasize a point I realize now that, growing up around my mother Yvonne, my cousins and other relatives who were older, even friends and acquaintances, I know now that I really wasn’t poor. I was one of the richest men on earth.”

Dye has been featured on Preach The Word Worldwide Network in Atlanta, NFocus Magazine in Franklin, Tenn. as well as The Tennessee Tribune in Nashville. His most recent feature is an international cover with Paris-based Moevir Magazine.

“I used to write poetry when I was in high school, mostly to impress the girls,” he said. “Then when I got to college I wanted to go into both journalism and fashion. I was told that journalists wrote in a certain style and I said ‘I don’t wanna write that way’. Then I was told that authors really don’t make money until they die. I was also told that trying to be a model from northeast Mississippi wasn’t gonna work out for me either. If I had listened to all of that, I would have never kept on trying.”

“My faith in God allowed me to listen to Him instead of all the naysayers who kept telling me I was wasting my time. The Lord promised me I would have books and that good things would happen if I just trusted in Him and allow Him to work in my life,” noted Dye.

Maybe most impressive about Dye is the fact he has done all his own marketing and promotion to earn his rightful place among one of most successful African Americans in the country today.

“I knew my day would come,” he explained, “but no matter what I have in material goods I want my legacy to be that people who look to me that are from these small towns will realize that material things are not the end-all, be-all. Yes, nice homes, cars and clothes are all good things. But they are a by-product of putting your faith and trust in God and a lot of hard work, plus never losing sight of your goals.”


News
Tax free weekend begins today

Local shoppers looking for a good deal on clothing, shoes and school supplies will receive a extra discount at the register over the next two days.

Mississippi’s annual sales tax holiday will happen Friday and Saturday at shops across the Magnolia state. During this temporary period, the state’s normal 7 percent sales tax is not collected or paid on the purchase of specific products.

Sales tax is not due if the sale price of a single item is less than $100.

Eligible clothing is any article of apparel designed to be worn on the human body including pants, shirts and blouses, dresses, coats, jackets, belts, hats, undergarments, and multiple piece garments sold as a set. Footwear is any article of apparel for human feet except for skis, swim fins, roller blades, skates and any similar items. Accessories such as jewelry, handbags, luggage, umbrellas, wallets, watches, briefcases and similar items do not qualify for tax free. School Supplies means items that are commonly used by a student in a course of study.

Tennessee’s annual sales tax holiday will also take place this weekend and extend by one day. The period runs from Friday through Sunday.

During this time, consumers may purchase clothing, school supplies and computers and other qualifying electronic devices without paying sales tax. Certain price restrictions apply. For school supplies and clothing, the threshold for qualifying items is $200 or less. For computers and other electronics, the price threshold is $3,000 or less.

Tennessee has a second sales tax holiday weekend focusing on restaurant sales.

This period runs Friday, Aug. 7 through Sunday, Aug. 9 and is limited to the retail sale of food and drink by restaurants.


AP
2nd US virus surge hits plateau, but few experts celebrate

NEW YORK — While deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. are mounting rapidly, public health experts are seeing a flicker of good news: The second surge of confirmed cases appears to be leveling off.

Scientists aren’t celebrating by any means, warning that the trend is driven by four big, hard-hit places – Arizona, California, Florida and Texas – and that cases are rising in close to 30 states in all, with the outbreak’s center of gravity seemingly shifting from the Sun Belt toward the Midwest.

Some experts wonder whether the apparent caseload improvements will endure. It’s also not clear when deaths will start coming down. COVID-19 deaths do not move in perfect lockstep with the infection curve, for the simple reason that it can take weeks to get sick and die from the virus.

The future? “I think it’s very difficult to predict,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost infectious-disease expert.

The virus has claimed over 150,000 lives in the U.S., by far the highest death toll in the world, plus more than a half-million others around the globe.

Over the past week, the average number of deaths per day in the U.S. has climbed more than 25 percent, from 843 to 1,057. Florida on Thursday reported 253 more deaths, setting its third straight single-day record. The number of confirmed infections nationwide has topped 4.4 million.

The collateral damage from the virus has mounted, with the U.S. economy shrinking at a dizzying 32.9 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter – by far the worst quarterly plunge on records dating to 1947. And more than 1.4 million laid-off Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, further evidence that employers are still shedding jobs five months into the crisis.

Amid the outbreak and the bad economic news, President Donald Trump for the first time publicly floated the idea of delaying the Nov. 3 presidential election, warning without evidence that increased mail-in voting will result in fraud. Changing Election Day would require an act of Congress, and the notion ran into immediate resistance from top Republicans and Democrats alike.

Herman Cain, the former pizza-chain CEO who in 2012 unsuccessfully sought to become the first Black candidate to win the Republican nomination for president, died of complications from the virus at 74.

Based on a seven-day rolling average, daily cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. fell from 67,317 on July 22 to 65,266 on Wednesday, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University. That is a decline of about 3%.

Researchers prefer to see two weeks of data pointing in the same direction to say whether a trend is genuine. “But I think it is real, yes,” said Ira Longini, a University of Florida biostatistician who has been tracking the coronavirus and has been a source of disease forecasts used by the government.

The Associated Press found the seven-day rolling average for new cases plateaued over two weeks in California and decreased in Arizona, Florida and Texas.

The trends in Arizona, Texas and Florida are “starting to bend the curve a bit,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins public health researcher. Those states, along with California, have been pouring large numbers of cases each day into the national tally. So when those places make progress, the whole country looks better, she said.

Also, in another possible glimmer of hope, the percentage of tests that are coming back positive for the virus across the U.S. dropped from an average of 8.5 percent to 7.8 percent over the past week.

But with the outbreak heating up in the Midwest, Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ordered masks be worn statewide because of a spike in cases, joining some 30 other states that have taken such measures.

The latest surge in cases became evident in June, weeks after states began reopening following a deadly explosion of cases in and around New York City in the early spring. Daily case counts rose to 70,000 or more earlier this month. Deaths, too, began to climb sharply, after a lag of a few weeks.

Some researchers believe that the recent leveling-off is the result of more people embracing social distancing and other precautions.

“I think a lot of it is people wearing masks because they’re scared,” Longini said.

But Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health, said the trend could also be due to natural dynamics of the virus that scientists to do not yet understand.

Without robust testing and other measures to keep the virus in check, a third peak is possible – or even likely – given that only an estimated 10 percent of Americans have been infected so far, experts said. And there’s no reason to believe the peak can’t be larger than the first two.

“This disease will continue to hopscotch around until it finds tinder – susceptible individuals – like any good fire,” said Khan, a former top infectious-disease outbreak investigator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fauci said he is “somewhat comforted” by the recent plateau. But a stabilization of cases at around 60,000 is “still at a very high level.” He said he is also worried about rising percentages of tests coming back positive in states like Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.

“That’s a warning sign that you might be seeing a surge,” Fauci said. “They’ve really got to jump all over that.”

———

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


News
FEMA awards local disaster relief funds

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved disaster relief funding for local entities.

The agency awarded a public assistance grant of $2,265,868.31 to the City of Corinth to make up 75 percent of debris removal costs incurred as a result of the remnants of Tropical Storm Olga on Oct. 26.

The Alcorn County Electric Power Association will use $1,261,342 to cover the cost of replacing 218 utility poles, 105 transformers, and associated personnel costs following Tropical Storm Olga.

Earlier this month, FEMA also awarded $1.48 million to support the City of Corinth’s repair of an underground storm drainage system also damaged by Olga. Commonly referred to as the “arch pipe,” it is in the South Corinth area.

FEMA Public Assistant Grants provide supplemental disaster assistance to state, local and tribal governments, and certain types of private, nonprofit organizations for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged, publicly owned facilities.

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith announced the grant awards.