HATTIESBURG, Miss.—The Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed two more cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in Mississippi this morning. All three known patients currently reside in Forrest County. The announcement came hours after Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told SuperTalk Radio host Paul Gallo that a second man had tested positive for COVID-19 in the Hattiesburg area, but he did not then mention a third patient.
Forrest County is about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, the capital city.
"This situation will evolve as the days and weeks go by. It isn't a single event like a tornado or hurricane. It's going to be ongoing. We know that," Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker said during a press conference at Forrest General Hospital on Thursday afternoon after officials confirmed the first case.
The first coronavirus patient, a 49-year-old man whose identity is unknown, returned to Hattiesburg Monday from a trip to Florida, Dr. Rambod Rouhbakhsh, the assistant director of the Forrest General Hospital Family Medicine Residency program, said at the press conference. The man entered Mississippi at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, he said, before traveling back to Hattiesburg, but did not show symptoms until the next day.
"Early Tuesday morning, the patient started showing signs of fever, coughing, muscle aches and presented for treatment at one of our clinics, at which point nasal and oral swabs were obtained and submitted to the state lab for testing," Rouhbakhsh said.
The Mississippi State Department of Health test came back positive, but authorities are only describing the man's status as a "presumptive positive" until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control gets the results of a second test.
Mississippi Patient 'Doing Well'
Rouhbakhsh praised the patient for what he called "perfect" handling of the situation. The man called a local Forrest General clinic Tuesday morning to describe his symptoms, rather than showing up, and clinic workers were able to give him gloves and a mask to wear before entering.
"Had he not been prepared with masks and gloves, it would've been much greater exposure" for patients and staff at the clinic, Rouhbakhsh said.
The first patient is now self-quarantining at home and "doing well," he said, adding that Forrest General is checking in with the man several times a day. As of Thursday afternoon, MSDH was testing swabs of the man's travel companion to find out whether or not that person may also have contracted the virus. The Jackson Free Press cannot presently confirm whether the travel companion is the second or third confirmed patient in Forrest County.
"We are asking our patients to remain calm," Rouhbakhsh said, noting that the hospital is limiting patients at Forrest General to one visitor at a time because of a shortage of supplies for medical masks, gloves and gowns.
Rouhbakhsh said people can limit possible exposure to the coronavirus by avoiding large gatherings. Earlier on Thursday, MSDH officials recommended that people not go to gatherings with 250 people or more.
"Do not go to church. Do not go to mass gatherings that are not absolutely necessary. That's the recommendation. ... I'm not quite sure how they arrived at 250, but my interpretation of that is if you don't need to be in a mass gathering, God will forgive you. That's my opinion," Rouhbakhsh said.
Mayor Barker: 'Situation Will Evolve' for Weeks
Barker said he had already been in touch with local religious leaders and event organizers to discuss ways to immediately limit transmission of the virus, referred to as "flattening the curve" in epidemiology parlance. It is not about protecting yourself, but preventing the spread of the virus to other people or overwhelming to health-care system so it can treat patients and contain the outbreak.
"Use good common sense when it comes to choosing to attend a concert, church or other event. And we've begun conversations with pastors letting them know they need to communicate this to their parishioners, and many are looking at alternative ways of worship, such as broadcasting something online," Barker said at Thursday's press conference.
"And to our many organizations that host events and festivals and make it fun to live in our city, I want to ask your cooperation for postponing or cancelling events for the time being where there might be over 250 people in an area at a time."
Even before the local man began presenting symptoms, Barker was already meeting with local members of the medical, education and emergency management communities to prepare for the coronavirus' eventual arrival.
"This situation will evolve as days and weeks go by. It isn't a single event like a tornado or a hurricane. It's going to be ongoing. We know that. ... Yes, this is a challenge. Yes, there will likely be more positive cases in the days and weeks and months going forward. Yes, this will inconvenience us in the days and weeks and months going by, but we are no stranger to tough situations in this community," Barker said, referring to several disasters that hit the college town in recent years, including a deadly tornado that hit the University of Southern Mississippi in 2013 and another one that tore through William Carey University in 2017.
Read breaking coverage of COVID-19 in Mississippi, plus safety tips, cancellations, more in the JFP's archive.
Hattiesburg is providing updates for residents on the City's official website at hattiesburgms.com/coronavirus, which also lists local event cancellations.
Forrest Health, which owns Forrest General Hospital and a number of other health-care facilities across the state, is providing coronavirus-related updates on its website. On Thursday, Forrest Health announced that two of its facilities, the Pearl River County Nursing Home and the Jefferson Davis Community Extended Care Facility, are ending visitation for anyone who is "not employed or contracted by the facility to provide daily care."
At the press conference, Forrest County Board of Supervisors President David Hogan said the county may declare a state of emergency in order to access federal resources.
"Don't be alarmed by that. It's mainly for gathering the resources that are available to us. It does not necessarily mean that anything is spreading or getting worse," he said. "In time, we'll take care of this. It's likely it may get worse before it gets better, but as long as we're smart, we'll overcome this."
There is currently no treatment for the coronavirus, which first appeared in China in late December 2019 before spreading around the world. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic earlier this month. On Thursday, MSDH and the CDC recommend that people get tested if they have flu-like symptoms.
Most people who contract the virus will not experience major symptoms if they are young and healthy, Rouhbakhsh said, but people with pre-existing illnesses, particularly respiratory ones, and elderly people are at a higher risk.
"We're not sure that it infects (elderly people) more, but it affects them more. It really makes them sick. So we're really asking elderly people to avoid mass gatherings," he said.
He recommended that people make "wise" decisions about public outings, and consider taking steps like ordering from a food delivery app rather than eating out.
Medical scientists are working on a vaccine for the virus, but that could take a year or more.
"This is an evolving thing. This is the first time humans have been infected with this," said Rouhbakhsh. "And whenever we have a situation like this, the illness is more severe because we haven't built up antibodies. When we see this again, it won't be as bad as it is this time because people will have antibodies built up and it won't spread as quickly."
He used the moment to offer a "plug for vaccines."
"This is how vaccines work. This is how we're able to battle these diseases. If this was Influenza, we could really get rid of it. This illness would be a whole different story if there was a vaccine available for it," Rouhbakhsh said.
'Washing Your Hands is the Gold Standard'
Forrest County Chief Medical Officer Steven E. Farrell offered advice for guarding against the virus.
"The best (advice) for the community is (to do the) same thing you do in flu season: wash your hands, avoid contact with ill people, and try not to touch your face because this virus is transmitted into your body through facial contact," Farrell said.
People can still touch their face to do things like put on makeup or insert contact lenses if their hands are clean, Rouhbakhsh said.
"The reason we ask you not to touch your face is because you just haven't cleansed your hands all the time. But when you're at home, you wash your hands and you (can) put on your makeup, put in your contact lenses. That's OK, because washing your hands is the gold standard. You will get rid of this virus by washing effectively," he said. "Then you can do what you normally do. Just don't do it out in public when you're in the middle of a press conference."
Rouhbakhsh said Forrest General has tested three other people for coronavirus, all who came back negative. The hospital and its clinics only test for coronavirus after ruling out other illnesses, such as influenza and certain types of pneumonia.
"We were aware that cases would eventually come to our state and we have been preparing for weeks and are ready to care for our patients," he said.
On Thursday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba announced the launch of a COVID-19 task force composed of city officials, public-health experts, and other partners in the capital city's health-care system.
The MSDH website, healthyms.com, provides additional information on the virus in Mississippi and effective preventative measures for all residents.
Read the JFP's coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/coronavirus. Get more details on preventive measures here. And read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here.
Read MEMA's press release on a COVID-19 preparedness kit here. Email information about closings and other vital related logistical details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow contributing reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman.
Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin. Nick Judin contributed to this report.
Read more stories at jacksonfreepress.com/coronavirus.