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Reeves gets his Katrina with challenge of coronavirus

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves was a first-term state treasurer when the state was rocked by a massive and expensive disaster with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He worked with then-Gov. Haley Barbour to shape the short-term response and long-term recovery.

Now just a few months into his own time as governor, Reeves is in charge of Mississippi’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, a global problem that endangers lives and threatens to destabilize the economy.

Reeves appears to have learned lessons from Barbour, a fellow Republican he views as a mentor.

Reeves faced sharp criticism for his delay in issuing a statewide order for people to stay at home to try to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus, even as case numbers rose rapidly in next-door Louisiana.

By the time Reeves announced on Wednesday that he was setting a shelter-in-place order to take effect Friday evening and extend until the morning of April 20, he did it with the backing of big business groups — a classic approach by Barbour, who often rounded up support of influential groups before announcing public policy proposals.

Mississippi Economic Council president and CEO Scott Waller and Mississippi Manufacturers Association president and CEO John McKay issued a joint statement Wednesday praising Reeves’s order and applauding health care providers.

“This measure will help protect the health and safety of our citizens, while at the same time recognizing the vital role essential businesses provide by assuring delivery of necessary services,” they said.

Reeves’s order tells people to work from home, where possible. It also deems many types of businesses and manufacturing operations as essential and says they can remain open. This includes poultry processing and shipbuilding.

Reeves said Friday that some businesses are testing people’s temperatures as they enter work. While some with the virus could have fever, doctors have said that many may not know they have contracted the virus until well after they’ve infected others. Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction suffering more severe illnesses can require ventilators to survive, and as the caseload rapidly grows, hospitals are bracing for a wave of patients.

The coronavirus is harder on people with underlying health conditions, and Mississippi has high rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic problems.

The state also has the lowest number of physicians per capita, according to the Mississippi State Medical Association.

For years, Reeves and other Republicans who control state government have opposed the expansion of Medicaid to the working poor, and Reeves has said the coronavirus pandemic has not changed his mind. Expansion is an option under the health care overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, and Mississippi is in the minority of states rejecting it.

Democrats have said Mississippi has lost hundreds of millions of dollars by not expanding Medicaid, and that has endangered small rural hospitals, closing some of them.

The nonpartisan HOPE Policy Institute, which advocates for programs to help low-income residents, said in an analysis April 1 that the coronavirus “will exacerbate existing challenges, particularly for low-income, rural communities of color.” Using data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, HOPE said 188 of the 383 counties or parishes in Deep South states either don’t have an intensive care unit or don’t have a hospital at all. Mississippi had 40 counties without an ICU, the highest number in any of the states.

After Katrina, Barbour often praised Mississippians for being resilient and compassionate. Reeves is doing the same now, even as he acknowledges the stay-home order won’t be easy.

“We’re not afraid of hard moments. We step up during tough times,” Reeves said Friday. “You’re protecting your parent, your spouse, your friend, your neighbor, and more. By committing to follow the rules, you’re protecting yourself.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.