Mask up: Mississippi lawmakers return amid virus outbreak

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Most Mississippi legislators wore masks and practiced social distancing Monday as they returned to the state Capitol for the first time since the start of the largest coronavirus outbreak in any statehouse in the U.S.

“Please separate yourselves. I know it’s tempting to congregate and talk,” Republican Speaker Philip Gunn told members of the House.

The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Monday that 49 Mississippi legislators have tested positive for the virus — more than 25% of them. Legislative leaders say most cases have come from the House.

Dobbs said at least four legislators have been hospitalized, with three requiring intensive care.

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At least 12 other people who work in the Capitol have tested positive, and one of them has died, Dobbs said.

The updated numbers are a significant increase from mid-July, when the state Health Department said 30 legislators and 11 others from the Capitol were known to have tested positive for COVID-19.

The outbreak among Mississippi lawmakers comprises nearly half of the more than 100 state lawmakers who have tested positive nationwide, according to an Associated Press tally.

Mississippi lawmakers were in session Monday to finish parts of the state budget. They left the Capitol on July 1 after working there throughout June, many without wearing masks or following social distancing recommendations. Crowded elevators were common in June, as were gatherings in which unmasked people leaned close to talk to one another. The first virus cases among legislators were confirmed in the early days of July.

Republicans hold wide majorities in the Legislature. Among those who tested positive for the virus were Gunn, who had mild symptoms, and Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who said he felt miserable for several days in July

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves last week issued a statewide order for people to wear masks in public. He has also encouraged people to post photos of themselves on social media, saying who they’re trying to protect when they “mask up.”

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Associated Press writer David Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Missouri. Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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