BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Dr. Ashish K. Jha has been practicing medicine for more than 20 years. For the last 16 years, he has been the Professor of Global Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Additionally, Dr. Jha is a member of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The last six months of his life have been taken over by the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. As part of his responsibility at Harvard, he studies the COVID-19 numbers from every state, every day. In studying Mississippi’s numbers over the past several weeks, Jha said that he’s concerned that the state could be headed down a troubling path.
“I look at this like any other infectious disease in that it spreads from people to people. We know it’s a respiratory disease. It spreads when people spend time together in close quarters, and we know that for a lot of people it can be very deadly. (It’s) certainly a very serious disease. It’s not a very mild disease for many people,” Jha said.
“Last night, really looking at the data from yesterday and over the last couple of weeks, it felt to me like Mississippi was about to become number one in the country in terms of cases per capita. Testing seems to be down. Hospitalizations and deaths are up, and I am very concerned about the state of the outbreak in Mississippi and really concerned about the people in Mississippi and what this infection is doing,” he said.
Understanding that there are many opinions as to how the situation could be tackled in Mississippi, Dr. Jha said that action needs to be taken now.
“If we know that it spreads when people are spending time together in close quarters, what that means is people should be wearing masks because that really does reduce the transmission of the virus. Second is that we should avoid indoor gatherings of a meaningful number of people as much as possible,” Jha said.
“For a place like Mississippi, right now where the numbers are so high, that means I would personally close the bars. I would close indoor dining. I would close gyms. I would really limit indoor gatherings to a small number of people because if we don’t, the number of cases will continue, more people will get sick, and more people will die. This is really about preventing death, promoting life, and saving people in the state of Mississippi.”
Many schools will open across South Mississippi this week. We asked Jha about what he would do if the choice were his about opening schools in Mississippi.
“We can open schools. We can open them safely and we can keep them open. The point isn’t can you open schools. You can open schools anytime you want. The questions is can you keep schools open, and that actually requires real work,” he said.
Even for Jha, opening schools hits close to home.
“I’m a dad of three kids in schools, and I desperately want my kids to get back to school. It’s good for kids to be in school. It’s good for their mental health. It’s obviously good for their education, so we’ve gotta work on getting kids back to school, but we’ve gotta do it safely. You get one shot. If you open up schools when it’s not safe to do so, and there are large outbreaks in your school, you’re gonna be forced to shut down and it’s gonna be very hard to open up that school again any time soon,” he said.
“When you have large outbreaks happening in the community, it’s gonna be very hard because those folks are gonna be the teachers, the staff, the kids. They’re gonna come into school and infect each other. You’re gonna see a spread of the virus within the schools. I do not recommend it when outbreaks are large as they are in many parts in Mississippi,” he said. “If you can bring the virus levels down, you can work on making the schools safer. Get kids and teachers to wear masks. Put testing in schools as a way to offer another layer of protection.”
The outlook, Jha said, isn’t yet one from which the state can’t return.
“The bottom line is that we are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. We all want to get back to normal. We all want to put this behind us. I want to put the pandemic behind us and the virus behind us. We may be done with the virus, but the virus is not done with us. We’ve got a lot of work to do. If we’re smart, if we suppress the virus, we can open schools. We can open up businesses. We don’t have to have people dying. We know how to beat this thing. Ignoring it and acting like its not a real thing isn’t a strategy. We’ve gotta use science and evidence and data to defeat this virus. If we do all of these things, I believe we can do it,” Jha said.