DeSoto County tops state in COVID-19 cases as some officials there downplay pandemic

Southaven mayor continues to claim Tennesseans are being counted in DeSoto’s virus numbers

DeSoto County tops state in COVID-19 cases as some officials there downplay pandemic

DESOTO COUNTY, Miss. (WLBT) - Dubbed “on fire” with coronavirus infections weeks ago, DeSoto County now leads the state in total positive cases, with some elected officials continuing to question -- without proof -- whether the numbers from the state’s health department are accurate.

Data reported November 23 by the Mississippi State Department of Health indicates 9,569 people in DeSoto County have tested positive for coronavirus since the pandemic began.

Only twenty-eight cases separate DeSoto and the most populous county in the state, Hinds County.

Mississippi State Medical Association President Dr. Mark Horne attributes some of that to local leadership.

“When leaders fail to lead, then we often see a poor performance from those who are attempting to follow,” Horne said. “The anti-mask, anti-personal distancing, anti anything to slow the spread of the disease is an article of faith. And faith is not subject to fact.”

Recently, Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite’s comments on social media appear to downplay the severity of the pandemic.

Musselwhite claimed DeSoto County’s survival rate is 99.95 percent, but got that figure by dividing COVID-19 cases into the entire population there, many of whom haven’t even gotten the virus.

He also posted earlier this month that “many of the positive cases do not live in DeSoto County, but just tested here due to the close proximity.”

The state’s health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, responded to that last week.

“That’s not true. It’s only for people who live in Mississippi,” Dobbs said during a question-and-answer session Friday in conjunction with MSMA.

3 On Your Side reached out to Musselwhite to follow up on Dobbs’ criticism of the remark.

“It was not my intent to debate Dr. Dobbs regarding case counts in DeSoto County,” Musselwhite said in a statement to WLBT after declining an on-camera interview. “While it sounds like he may not be very familiar with the dynamics of DeSoto County and Shelby County, Tennessee, which has definitely affected testing accuracies (sic), my main point is that to get an accurate spread rate or per capita comparison to the Jackson-Metro, you must compare all cases and populations of the entire Memphis-Metro which includes and is interwoven with DeSoto County.”

Musselwhite’s per capita claim came as a response to Gov. Tate Reeves comparing DeSoto County’s infection rate to the entire Jackson metro area.

The Republican mayor’s quote also pointed to “testing accuracies,” an allegation which reasserts his opinion that DeSoto County’s COVID-19 numbers are not accurate.

The mayor offered no proof of that claim, even though 3 On Your Side asked his executive assistant for that specifically.

Liz Sharlot, director of communications for MSDH, addressed Musselwhite’s statement Monday afternoon.

“While we do not count Tennessee residents and our numbers are indeed very accurate, we do appreciate and share Mayor Musselwhite’s concern for the health and safety of DeSoto County residents,” Sharlot said in an email to WLBT.

While the county’s seven-day average of daily reported cases topped a hundred in recent days, Musselwhite said residents all now understand the severity of the virus.

“I would ask Dr. Dobbs to remember that fear and panic are also health risks,” Musselwhite said in the statement. “His comments regarding DeSoto County caused my citizens to demand a response from me.”

“What he calls fear and panic, I call fact and truth. It’s a fact that they have more cases. It’s true that most of us are going to get past this. But the more cases you have, the more serious illness, and the more serious illness you have, the more deaths you’re going to have,” Horne said.

Months ago, DeSoto County’s coroner, Josh Pounders called those deaths into question by claiming that the state’s health department demanded he count every COVID-19 positive person who died as dying from the virus.

Two county coroners refuted Pounders’ claim in a 3 On Your Side investigation that debunked Pounders’ claims.

Pounders later blocked this reporter’s email address, which was confirmed Monday when we attempted to reach him for this story.

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco also declined an on camera interview, saying he didn’t want to get into an argument with state leaders “through the media.”

Horne believes there’s a strong correlation between the opinions expressed through DeSoto’s leadership and the escalating infections in that county.

“DeSoto County is, by what I’m being told, not doing a good job of following mask mandates and the basic simple things of avoiding large crowds, avoiding exchanging air that’s potentially infected,” Horne said. “They’re not doing those things. And so if we know that’s how the virus is spread, why can’t we just say what’s obviously true?”

As long as it’s a question of faith over fear, he said, convincing residents that masks and social distancing saves lives will continue to be an uphill battle.

“I have faith that I’m gonna be okay. But the facts tell me wear a mask,” Horne said, holding up his surgical mask. “This is not a lack of faith.”

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