All of Mississippi’s clinics and hospitals should have the capacity to collect samples for COVID-19 testing, the state’s public-health officials said at a late Friday press conference at the Mississippi Department of Health’s headquarters in Jackson.
The agency said it had spent Friday calling more than 400 clinics, hospitals, and health-care providers to instruct them in proper protocol for screening, collecting and sending swab samples to Mississippi’s Public Health Lab or private labs, both of which have a limited supply of COVID-19 testing kits. Clinics do not need prior approval to send in COVID-19 samples; however, they must adhere to the MSDH guidelines for sample collection and shipping.
As of early afternoon Friday, the Jackson Free Press had not successfully reached a single health-care provider in the Jackson metro capable of scheduling a COVID-19 test. Some institutions, including Family Health Care Clinics, referred the Jackson Free Press back to MSDH, still unaware that they had the capacity to collect samples for COVID-19. MEA Medical Clinic in south Jackson told the Jackson Free Press that they were in the process of figuring out the procedures for COVID-19 testing.
Other institutions, including Baptist Medical Center, St. Dominic’s Memorial Hospital and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, either transferred the Jackson Free Press to lines that did not work, or in UMMC’s case suggested that they did not have the capacity to test at all, then transferring the reporter to 1-877-WST-NILE, which seems to be an old MSDH hotline.
The confusion may lie in a simple misunderstanding: COVID-19 testing does not take place at any of these health-care institutions. Rather, these providers collect a sample swab, store it in a biohazard container and send it to the relevant laboratory, which conducts the test.
A clinic in rural Mississippi reached out to the Jackson Free Press on background Friday, saying that after collecting samples for testing, confusion over the necessary containers for sample delivery to the Public Health Lab forced them to delay testing of potentially infected patients.
It is likely, based on the ongoing efforts of the Mississippi Department of Health and federal disease-control entities, that Monday will bring additional clarity for ground-level employees, physicians and clinics.
On Saturday afternoon, Gov. Tate Reeves—newly returned from a family trip to Spain, which plans to begin a 15-day national lockdown Monday—declared a state of emergency in Mississippi. Reeves announced the creation of the Mississippi Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Planning Steering Committee, intended to assist in statewide decisions about the virus’ spread.
Selective About Screening: High-Risk Cases Only
On Friday afternoon, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers fielded questions from the press while updating the public on the virus’ extent in Mississippi.
“Obviously things are progressing very rapidly,” Byers said. “We have really ramped up our testing capacity at the Public Health Lab."
The MSDH agency leaders addressed the concerns of uninsured Mississippians, directing them to their nearest Federally Qualified Health Center. FQHCs provide low-cost care to poor and uninsured patients.
Margaret Gray, president and CEO of Family Health Care Clinics, told the Jackson Free Press in an interview that Family Health Care Clinic’s locations in Pearl, Brandon, Prentiss, and Tylertown are federally qualified and in contract with a private laboratory capable of performing tests for COVID-19.
Read breaking coverage of COVID-19 in Mississippi, plus safety tips, cancellations, more in the JFP's archive.
“I was told by the lab company that the tests would not be at a cost to the patient,” Gray said.
Still, Gray and the other public-health officials warned that limited testing supplies mean providers must be extremely selective with choosing who to screen for COVID-19. “We’re screening for high-risk cases,” Gray said.
She added that Family Health Care Clinics contracts with a private lab currently providing access to five testing kits per clinic. Gray did not know when the private lab would receive more testing kits.
Gray stressed that individuals must call ahead to plan for COVID-19 testing to properly determine if a test is necessary and to prepare an isolated area for the potentially infected person to occupy. Individuals should never go to the emergency room for COVID-19 testing, only for serious threats requiring emergency care.
In contrast to Gray’s explanation of the private testing available, Family Health Care Clinics in the Jackson metro said Friday morning that they were unaware that they had the capacity to collect samples for COVID-19 testing.
‘New Normal’: Cases Not Following Travel Outside Mississippi
COVID-19 continued to spread across Mississippi as the week came to a close. As of Friday night, MSDH had reported six presumptive confirmations, meaning positive tests that await CDC verification. Three of those cases are in Forrest County, including the first confirmed infection, in a man who recently traveled to Florida. The Department of Health also announced new cases—women in Leflore County in the Mississippi Delta, Pearl River County in south Mississippi and Copiah County within a half hour south of the capital city.
The state health agency also announced that it would report further cases via the MSDH’s coronavirus web page with limited details about the relative age and status of the patients. Mississippi has tested a total of 90 patients to discover its six confirmed cases, and both Dobbs and Byers agreed that they expect positive COVID-19 test results to rise as the virus spreads through the Magnolia State.
"There will be cases from individuals who did not travel outside of Mississippi," Byers said. "That will be the new norm."
As of the Friday afternoon press conference, Jackson Public Schools officials planned for all JPS campuses and facilities to be open on Monday. But late Friday night JPS released a statement announcing the extension of spring break to next Wednesday. Earlier in the week, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba announced the creation of a COVID-19 task force meant to monitor the virus’ danger to Mississippi’s public schools. The Hinds County School District told staff today, March 14, that spring break is extended until March 20. Teachers and students will stay home, but central office personnel and administrators will report to work Monday.
The spread of the coronavirus in Mississippi is a rapidly changing story. Please follow reporter Nick Judin on Twitter at @nickjudin and watch our archive at jacksonfreepress.com/coroniavirus for updated information. Get more details on preventive measures here. And read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here. Read MEMA’s suggestions for a COVID-19 preparedness kit here.
Email information about closings and other vital related logistical details to [email protected].
Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected]. State intern Julian Mills contributed to this report.