State orders to wear face masks and limit business capacities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic expired Tuesday in Mississippi, a year after Gov. Tate Reeves issued his first executive order in response to the virus.

Reeves signed an executive order Tuesday to begin lifting precautions due to lower hospitalizations and case numbers.

“One year ago today I signed my first executive order aimed at limiting the damage of COVID-19. We had no idea what to expect,” Reeves said. “Earlier today I signed what I expect to be one of my last executive orders regarding COVID-19.”

While the state-imposed mandate has ended, local mask mandates remain in effect in McComb, Summit and Magnolia, which have their mayors’ executive orders in place.

“If businesses or individuals choose to take additional precautions, they are absolutely within their rights. We are not going to continue to use the heavy hand of government when it is no longer required,” Reeves said. “Our hospitalizations have plummeted, and our case numbers have also fallen dramatically. No county currently meets the original criteria we put in place for mask mandates.”

Reeves did not lift mask mandates from K-12 schools. That is to ensure that students can continue to attend in person, a crucial factor in their education, Reeves said.

A 50% capacity limit on indoor arenas also remains in effect under the new order.

The lifting of restrictions in Mississippi comes the same day that Texas Gov. Greg Abbot made the same move in that state. While Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that state will begin easing restrictions, a mask mandate remains in place until at least March 31.

Reeves also cited increasing vaccination rates and the arrival in Mississippi this week of 20,000 new units of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine as reasons to stop requiring masks statewide.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is easier to store and only requires one dose. While it also shows effectiveness against severe and fatal COVID-19 cases, it does not show the same effectiveness against any form of COVID-related illness the way the Moderna and Pfizer versions do.

Residents scheduling appointments will have their choice of Johnson & Johnson locations or Moderna and Pfizer sites, although the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will initially be available in fewer counties.

Reeves and Dobbs are still urging residents to practice recommended safety guidelines despite the expired orders.

“We are strongly recommending that you do not attend any mass gatherings at all until you get vaccinated,” Dobbs said. “There’s no way in heck I would go sit in a crowded bar right now, indoors or out.”

Reeves rejected the notion that the state was sending mixed messages by stressing caution against the virus while lifting restrictions. He said that fewer deaths and hospitalizations indicate less strain on the health care system.

“The message is very clear: If you get COVID today, there is going to be a hospital bed available to you,” he said. “The actions we’ve taken have gotten us to a point to where our hospitalizations are ... where they were in late May of 2020.”

While Reeves said he did not enjoy signing executive orders to enforce virus safety, his goal in doing so was to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Nine COVID-19 patients were being treated at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon, none of whom required mechanical ventilation, said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kevin Richardson.

On Tuesday, there had been three COVID-19-related deaths at SMRMC over the previous 10 days.

“It is important that we all continue to do everything possible to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” Richardson said. “Remember: The available COVID-19 vaccines are nearly 100% effective in preventing COVID deaths. The way out of this pandemic is through vaccination.”

As of Tuesday morning, 637,853 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including first and second doses, had been given in Mississippi, including 7,419 in Pike County.

Amite County vaccinations were at 1,687; Franklin County 1,622; Lawrence 4,015; Lincoln 7,544; Walthall 2,261 and Wilkinson 1,741.

There were 301 new cases of COVID-19 reported statewide Tuesday, making 16 days since a daily report of 1,000 or more cases.

Tuesday’s new virus cases included six in Pike County, two in Amite County, three in Lincoln County, one each in Lawrence and Walthall counties, and none in Franklin or Wilkinson counties.

The State Health Department also reported 44 new COVID-19-related deaths. There was one new death each in Pike, Amite and Lincoln counties.

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