How well did Mississippi respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? The health department is hiring an outside contractor to answer that question.
The contractor, who should start work in early November, will conduct interviews with people involved in a wide range of pandemic response efforts, from contact tracing and COVID testing to hospital operations and public information. They’ll prepare an “after-action report” that will reconstruct and analyze Mississippi’s response – including how well state and local agencies followed emergency response plans – and offer suggestions for improvement.
Department staff typically prepare after-action reports following disasters or public health emergencies. But because of the scope of the pandemic response, which lasted more than 800 days, the department is hiring a contractor this time, Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection, said in a statement to Mississippi Today.
Craig said the report will be used to improve pandemic planning and preparedness. The department will use federal funds to pay the contractor.
Just shy of 13,000 Mississippians have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to health department data. Nearly 900,000 cases have been reported in the state.
During the first year of the pandemic, Mississippi was frequently one of the first states to loosen restrictions on masking and crowds in public places. Months after Gov. Tate Reeves lifted the state’s mask mandate, as cases surged during the delta wave, he called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation for indoor masking “foolish.”
Mississippi had the highest per capita number of deaths of any state in the country, with 427 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to the New York Times. The national average was 311.
A report by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund released in June ranked Mississippi’s pandemic response last among 50 states and the District of Columbia. Mississippi scored particularly poorly in premature deaths from treatable causes – ranking 51st – and out-of-pocket medical costs for employees.
Mississippi also saw the country’s highest percentage increase in the drug overdose death rate from 2019 to 2020, according to the Commonwealth Fund.
The report produced for the health department will take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of the agency’s pandemic response. The analysis will answer questions including:
- “What happened? What was supposed to happen based on current plans, policies and procedures?
- Was there a difference? What was the impact?
- Do plans, policies, and procedures support activities and associated tasks?
- Are MSDH responders familiar with these documents?”
According to the request for proposals, the state recently conducted feedback sessions with regional health department team members. The results of those sessions will be shared with the contractor chosen to write the report.
The 59-page request offers a sense of the scope of the state’s pandemic response, which involved thousands of people working at the health department, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Mississippi Department of Human Services, the Mississippi State University Extension Service, the Board of Animal Health, the National Guard and the Department of Environmental Quality, as well as private contractors.
The state had operated 916 testing sites as of April 7, 2022 and processed over 3,200,000 PCR tests as of late April.
The contract will last until early November 2023 but may be renewed by the health department for an additional year.
The department also hired an outside contractor to evaluate its response to Hurricane Katrina.
“The lessons learned from the Katrina after-action report furthered the health and medical response to hurricanes in Mississippi,” Craig said.