A growing number of Mississippi lawmakers are testing positive for the novel coronavirus, following a month of working together in close proximity at the State Capitol building without wearing face masks.
As of Wednesday, at least 26 lawmakers — or one in seven Mississippi legislators — have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the largest known outbreak of any state legislature in the nation.
Among those testing positive in the heavily Republican body are the GOP presiding officers, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. State officials say none of the lawmakers has been hospitalized.
FILE: Mississippi legislators, staff and Capitol employees take advantage of a drive-thru COVID-19 testing center on the Capitol grounds in Jackson, Miss.
Mississippi has seen a rapid rise in confirmed cases in the past two weeks, with the total hitting nearly 33,600 by Wednesday, including at least 1,200 deaths.
In addition to the legislators, at least 10 people who work in the Capitol have been diagnosed with the virus, the state health officer said Wednesday.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday warned that anyone who has been in contact with legislators or any of their staff needs to get tested.
Republican Sen. Chad McMahan, who has tested negative, said Thursday that he washed his hands often and did his best to keep his distance from others at the Capitol. But he skipped wearing a mask because “it’s quite uncomfortable.”
Mississippi legislators were supposed to meet from January through April but went home in mid-March because of the outbreak. They returned briefly in May during a feud with the governor over spending coronavirus relief money from the federal government.
From the start of the crisis, people entering the Capitol had to undergo a screening each day, with a temperature check and a few questions. Chairs in committee rooms were spaced apart, hand sanitizer was widely available, and signs told people to take precautions.
When legislators met in May, they took social distancing seriously. Only a few people at a time were allowed on the House floor, with voting conducted in small groups, and senators had to sit far from each other in their chamber.
They returned in June, facing a July 1 deadline to write a state budget and handle other business. The longer they were together, the more the safety precautions slipped.
Legislators were soon pulled into a debate regarding the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag. After voting to remove the Confederate symbol, spectators cheered and hugged in the galleries, and legislators embraced and posed for photos.
In Mississippi, Democratic Rep. Tom Miles tested negative in recent days. His 60-year-old mother, who was an emergency room nurse, died of the virus May 1. Miles said he wore a mask at the Capitol.
“When you get in a fishbowl of people, you’re at risk,” Miles said.
Rep. John Faulkner, a Democrat, who consistently wore a mask at the Capitol, has tested positive. In a Facebook video, he said he has had mild symptoms akin to a sinus infection with an occasional cough.
“Even if you do all that you can do, there’s still a possibility that you can be infected with this,” he said. “If you’re not practicing, following the guidelines from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], then we’re basically playing Russian roulette with our health and our lives and the lives of our friends and families.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.