JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — At least eight Mississippi lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus after working for weeks in a Capitol where many people stood or sat close together and did not wear masks.
Among those who have publicly acknowledged having COVID-19 are Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn.
The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Tuesday there are also at least 11 other suspected cases of the virus among legislators and Capitol employees. In addition, Dobbs said the highly contagious virus is spreading at parties and other social gatherings around the state.
Dobbs said COVID-19 case numbers are increasing rapidly through gatherings where people are not wearing masks and are standing too close to each other.
“You can’t put a lot of people together in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century and expect nothing bad to happen,” Dobbs said during a news conference.
Mississippi’s lieutenant governor has tested positive for the new coronavirus, his spokeswoman said Tuesday, hours after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves announced that his own test for the highly contagious virus had come back negative.
The announcement about 73-year-old Republican Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann came two days after the other top leader in the Mississippi Legislature, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, 57, announced his own positive test for COVID-19.
Mississippi legislators were at the Capitol for most of June and on July 1, wrapping up their annual session that was interrupted for several weeks by the pandemic. Many legislators and others in the building did not wear masks, and people often sat and stood close to one another.
Hosemann has informed members of the Senate he tested positive for the virus and “will follow State Health Department guidelines by self-quarantining and working at home,” his spokeswoman Leah Rupp Smith said Tuesday.
Reeves, 46, said Monday he was in isolation with his wife and their three daughters at the Governor’s Mansion. They were tested for the coronavirus after he came into contact with a lawmaker who tested positive last week.
Reeves said Tuesday on Twitter that his test for coronavirus came back negative.
“My girls and I tested negative for COVID-19,” he wrote. “Limited contact with the people who were diagnosed, but better safe than sorry! If someone you know gets the virus, get a test!”
Reeves will follow social distancing guidelines and “will continue to reduce contact with others as dramatically as possible, while still completing his duties as governor,” his spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says even if people test negative for COVID-19 and feel healthy, they should remain in quarantine since symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure.
Gunn and Hosemann stood near Reeves and others last week as the governor signed a bill that retired Mississippi’s 126-year-old state flag that had the Confederate battle emblem. None of them wore masks during the ceremony.
Gunn, a Republican from the Jackson suburb of Clinton, said Sunday in a Facebook video that he got tested because he had been in close proximity to another House member who tested positive.
Democratic Rep. Bo Brown of Jackson announced a positive test result in the last several days. Republican Rep. Greg Haney of Gulfport said Tuesday that he has tested positive.
“We don’t know where we got it,” Haney told The Associated Press. “We had to eat out, so we could have got it from a waitress, waiter, you know, you can’t wear your mask while you eat. You just don’t know.”
The Health Department had free drive-thru COVID-19 testing Monday for legislators and others who work in the Capitol.
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.