Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs answers a reporter’s question regarding the early start of public schools throughout the state at Gov. Tate Reeves’ COVID-19 press briefing in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. State officials provided reporters an update on the coronavirus and the state’s ongoing strategy to limit transmission in public schools. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

by Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

Mississippi’s top public health official said Monday that the state is seeing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in July.
“4th wave is here,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, wrote on Twitter.

The Mississippi State Department of Health said 2,326 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed Friday through Sunday. That is largest three-day increase of cases  reported in the state since February.

As of Monday, the Health Department said Mississippi has had 329,130 confirmed cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. The department said 7,468 people in the state had died from the virus.

Democratic state Rep. Jeramey Anderson of Moss Point posted the Health Department numbers on Twitter, and wrote: “Consequences of not getting vaccinated and poor mask wearing. Well Mississippi — you wanted it here it is. This is ridiculous and the deaths that will definitely follow were completely avoidable.”

Mississippi has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the nation, and the increase of cases is happening as schools prepare for the new academic year. Classes begin July 26 in the northern Mississippi city of Corinth and in early to mid-August in most other districts.

The state Board of Education on Thursday adopted policies  requiring all school districts to restart in-person learning as the main form of instruction for 2021-22. During the previous year, districts had the option for in-person or online instruction, or a combination of the two.

The education board said districts offering online classes must ensure students receive at least 5-1/2 hours of instruction per day, students have reliable internet access and those participating in distance learning must go on campus to take statewide assessments.

Districts will be allowed to offer schoolwide or districtwide distance learning if needed because of the pandemic or other emergencies, under the new policies.

The state Health Department released its own guidelines Thursday saying all eligible teachers, staff and students 12 and older should receive COVID-19 vaccination; masks should be worn inside schools by all people are 2 or older who are not fully vaccinated; and schools should maintain at least 3 feet (1 meter) of distance between students in classrooms.

The state’s largest school district, in DeSoto County, said in its back-to-school plan that maintaining distance between students will be challenging.

“School districts have a limited number of buses, limited square footage in classrooms, and many other efficiency-related obstacles,” the DeSoto plan said. “Social distancing will be maintained to the greatest extent possible, and strategies will be implemented by school officials based on the feasibility of the unique space at each school and in each classroom.”

The Health Department also said routine screening testing of asymptomatic unvaccinated students, teachers and staff is recommended. It said schools should continue to isolate students, teachers and staff who have COVID-19 and should continue to conduct contact tracing to identify people who should be quarantined.

Under the Health Department guidance, fully vaccinated students, teachers and staff do not have to wear a mask indoors, do not have to quarantine or be excluded from school if exposed to COVID-19 and do not have to be tested unless they show symptoms.