State announces infant's COVID-19 death amid modest rise in Mississippi cases
This marks the first pediatric COVID death in the state since February 2022, state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers told State Board of Health members at their meeting Wednesday. This is the 14th death of a child under the age of 18 due to COVID-19 in the state.
“So it is a reminder that COVID is still out there, it's still transmitted, and it can still lead to severe complications,” Byers said at the meeting. “So, it's important for everybody who is eligible to stay up-to-date for vaccinations.”
Byers gave limited details but said the child was under a year old.
“Remember that when we get vaccinated, not only does it protect us, but it also protects those individuals around us who are vulnerable, who may not be eligible for vaccination, or may be folks who are in those higher risk categories,” Byers said.
Pandemic numbers have risen some recently – a normal trend for the winter – but Byers said he was encouraged to see no dramatic spikes in case counts. Hospitalizations have started rising throughout the new year, along with an increase in ICU admissions and use of ventilators.
The health department reported as of Jan. 9, 365 hospital patients had confirmed COVID-19 infections; 50 were in the ICU and 18 were on ventilators. Last January's peak had about 300 patients in the ICU and over 1,500 hospitalizations before numbers dropped drastically in March.
In its last weekly case count posted Tuesday, the health department reported 5,778 new cases and 15 COVID-related deaths between Dec. 27 to Jan. 2.
Cases last spiked during the summer and dropped during the fall before the current rise. Still, the current case count is about half of last January's peak of over 10,000 cases in a seven-day period.
But with the rise of at-home testing and less-severe COVID-related symptoms caused by some of the virus' newer strains, the state's weekly count only gives some insight to how many cases are occurring statewide.
The health department recommends everyone 6 months old and older receives the vaccine and its boosters. Health officials especially recommend vaccinations for adults 65 and older and anyone with a weakened immune system or underlying health problems.
Four children died from the virus in Mississippi in 2022. One was between 1 and 5 years old and three others were between the ages of 11 and 17.
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On this day in 1940
Feb. 29, 1940
Hattie McDaniel became the first Black American to win an Oscar, playing the role of the servant Mammy in the film “Gone With the Wind.”
The daughter of a gospel singer and a veteran of the Union Army, she spent a lifetime fighting racism in her long career, which included singing the blues and performing on the radio. After the stock market crash in 1929, she could only find work cleaning bathrooms at a Milwaukee-area club. The owner finally agreed to let her on stage, and she became a regular performer.
McDaniel went on to appear in more than 300 films, singing with Paul Robeson and others and performing with everyone from Jimmy Stewart to the Three Stooges.
Thinking she had little chance to get the part in “Gone With the Wind” because of her reputation as a comic actress, she showed up at the audition in an authentic maid's uniform and won the role. She said she felt she understood the role because her own grandmother had worked on a plantation similar to Tara.
Despite her stellar performance, Georgia's segregation laws barred her from going to the film's premiere in Atlanta. When Clark Gable threatened to boycott, she convinced him to attend anyway. She did, however, attend the Hollywood screening of the film.
After being handed the Oscar, she told those gathered, “This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
When some criticized her for accepting that role and others like it, she replied, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one.”
During World War II, she chaired the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, performing with actress Bette Davis for the troops. When white residents of Los Angeles sought to have Black families evicted through race restrictive covenants, she helped fight the matter in court, and the families won.
In the years that followed, McDaniel became the first Black actor to star in her own radio show with the comedy series, “Beulah,” and replaced Ethel Waters in the TV version of the show. After filming a handful of episodes, she had to quit because she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Racism kept her from being buried in the then-whites-only Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (Cemetery officials later put up a monument honoring her.) Thousands attended her funeral service, and two stars honor her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for radio and one for film).
In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service featured her on a stamp, and four years later, when Mo'Nique received an Oscar for her performance in “Precious,” she appeared in a blue dress and gardenias in her hair, just as McDaniel had, and thanked the late star “for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”
State withheld ‘Backchannel’ texts from New defense teams for years, lawsuit alleges
At the time State Auditor Shad White announced arrests in what he called a historic public embezzlement bust, which involved officials funneling welfare funds to a pharmaceutical startup, White had information that Gov. Phil Bryant was a “key team member” in that company, a new lawsuit alleges.
In the four years since, the complaint from a defendant in the case alleges that White and the Mississippi Department of Human Services has “actively concealed Bryant's role” in the scandal.
Investigators gathered text messages revealing that during Bryant's last year in office, the governor consulted Jake Vanlandingham, the CEO of the experimental concussion drug firm called Prevacus, and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre while hundreds of thousands of federal welfare funds flowed to their project. Texts show Bryant, who as governor oversaw the welfare agency, then agreed to accept interest in the company after he left his post.
The texts, first publicly surfaced by Mississippi Today's investigative series “The Backchannel,” would prove to be crucial evidence in both the ongoing criminal and civil investigations.
But officials withheld the relevant texts from Nancy New, who was charged with fraud for funneling the funds to Prevacus, for over two years, a new court filing alleges. New, who claims she was acting on the governor's direction, didn't even allegedly have access to the documents when she pleaded guilty to the state charges in April of 2022.
“Most damning perhaps, OSA (Office of the State Auditor) failed to produce Vanlandingham's phone and text messages to Nancy New and Zach New in criminal discovery,” reads a new third-party complaint against Bryant from New's son Jess New. “Instead, OSA withheld evidence from the News until long after a plea had been entered in state court.”
In response, a spokesperson for the auditor's office said it would have been the responsibility of the prosecutor, in this case the Hinds County District Attorney's Office, which secured the initial indictments, to release discovery materials.
“The Auditor's Office turned over all evidence to the Hinds County District Attorney's Office in a timely manner well before any guilty pleas were entered,” the auditor's spokesperson Fletcher Freeman said in a statement. “This is a desperate attempt to try and discredit not only the State Auditor's Office but also the Hinds County District Attorney's Office, which together stopped the largest public fraud scheme in Mississippi history.”
Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens similarly said in an email that his office has a legal duty to serve all criminal defendants with discovery. “Despite Mr. New's claims, the Hinds County District Attorney's Office did not deviate from its discovery obligations in this case, and all material was timely disclosed pursuant to Mississippi law. Any claim to the contrary is simply false,” he wrote on Wednesday.
Jess New, a Jackson attorney and director of the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, is a defendant in the extensive civil litigation MDHS has filed against 47 people or companies in an attempt to recoup the misspent funds. MDHS's complaint alleges Jess New received welfare funds as a contractor for his mom's nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center and attempted to profit from personal interest in the pharmaceutical project. While his mother and brother Zach New have pleaded guilty to state charges, Jess New has not been charged criminally.
On Wednesday, Jess New requested the judge allow him to file a third-party complaint against Bryant, who is not a defendant of the civil suit. While other defendants have asked that Bryant be added to the suit, this is the first time a defendant has attempted to actually bring a complaint against Bryant.
“MDHS has labeled the use of welfare grants to fund Prevacus as ‘an illegal transaction,' yet MDHS continues to refuse to include Bryant as a Defendant despite overwhelming evidence of Bryant's principal role in the ‘illegal' transaction,” reads Jess News' complaint, filed by his attorney Allen Smith.
A gag order in the case has prevented parties or their counsel from providing any information or clarification to the public. The complaint details Bryant's entanglement with Prevacus starting with their introduction in late 2018 until the arrests in 2020, using much of the same written communication included in countless news reports and court filings.
What's unique about Jess New's filing this week is how it describes the events leading up to the arrests and the flow of information afterwards — raising questions about exactly what law enforcement knew when.
White began quietly investigating the welfare agency in mid-2019 when he learned about suspicious payments by then-MDHS Director John Davis to professional wrestling brothers Brett and Teddy DiBiase.
Investigators eventually unearthed checks from New's nonprofit to a concussion drug firm called Prevacus and subpoenaed Vanlandingham for documents in late December of 2019.
“On January 23, 2020, Vanlandingham responded by forwarding emails and documents to OSA that expressly mention Bryant and indicate his involvement with Prevacus since 2018,” Jess New's complaint reads.
The email was dated Dec. 29, 2018 — just three days after Bryant attended a dinner for Prevacus and four days before Davis and New met with Vanlandingham and Favre “at Bryant's direction,” the lawsuit alleges, to commit the funding.
“Governor Bryant is very supportive of future relations including drug clinical trials and manufacturing in the State of Mississippi,” Vanlandingham's email reads. “I would like nothing more than to work with you all and Brett to bring benefit to Southern Miss University as well.”
The lawsuit alleges Vanlandingham attached a document listing “key” Prevacus “team members,” which included Bryant. In another email he produced to the auditor's investigator, Vanlandingham told his investors that a “great deal of this has been funded with the help of folks in Mississippi including the Governor.”
“Bryant is a necessary party to this lawsuit, but the State of Mississippi, through MDHS and OSA, have actively concealed Bryant's role. Bryant's joinder as a Defendant is essential to Jess New's ability to adequately defend himself,” Jess New's complaint reads. “MDHS seeks to improperly blame Jess New for grant funds that Bryant directed to Prevacus. Jess New is entitled to show the jury that Bryant directed these grant funds to Prevacus while Governor in order to benefit himself, personally, and his business associates.”
In mid-January of 2020, while Vanlandingham was dealing with the subpoena from the auditor's office, he was simultaneously making arrangements with Bryant to give him “a company package for all your help.” Bryant had just left office; texts indicate he was waiting until that date to enter into business with Prevacus. Shortly after, Bryant joined a new consulting firm and by Feb. 4, 2020, he was confirming a meeting date and location with Vanlandingham.
The same day, a Hinds County grand jury handed down indictments against the welfare officials. Equipped with at least some documents indicating Prevacus' connection to welfare funds involved Bryant, White made his arrests the next day.
In response to the arrests, then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst's office issued a release revealing that White had not included the FBI in his investigation, despite the scheme involving federal funds. White, a Republican, had previously worked on Bryant's gubernatorial campaign and was appointed to his position by Bryant to fill a vacancy. White explained that he went to the Hinds County District Attorney's Office, run by a Democrat, to avoid the appearance of political influence and for the ability to act quickly compared to the federal authorities.
But the arrests also resulted in another thing: Bryant ending talks with the company at the center of the scandal, texts show.
When news broke of the arrests, Bryant texted Vanlandingham to ask about the charges. The scientist told the former governor he'd been subpoenaed and “just gave them everything.”
“Not good…” Bryant wrote.
Five days later, White visited the local FBI offices to turn over his investigative file. Within hours, he also publicly named Bryant as the whistleblower of the case. To explain, White said that Bryant had relayed the initial intel about suspected fraud — the small tip regarding Davis and the wrestlers — in mid-2019.
The same morning, Bryant texted Vanlandingham, “I was unaware your company had ever received any TANIF funds. If some received anything of benefit personally then Legal issues certainly exists. I can have no further contact with your company. It is unfortunate to find ourselves at this point . I was hoping we could have somehow helped those who suffer from Brain Injuries. This has put that that hope on the sidelines.”
White's office retrieved this and other texts from Vanlandingham's phone after executing a search warrant on his Florida home on Feb. 19, 2020.
Defense attorneys for the News wouldn't see these texts, according to the latest lawsuit, until Mississippi Today published them more than two years later.
‘Moral imperative’: House overwhelmingly passes Mississippi Medicaid expansion
Medicaid expansion, which for more than a decade has been blocked by legislative leaders, passed the House Wednesday 98-20 in less than 15 minutes and now advances to the Senate.
House Medicaid Chair Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, explained the policy as a “moral imperative” and said it “should transcend politics.” She also said that lawmakers have yet to propose a viable alternative to expansion to deal with Mississippi's lack of health care access and poor health outcomes and that “‘No' is not a policy that has helped.”
No questions followed McGee's explanation of House Bill 1725. The bill passed with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a potential veto from Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who for years has opposed Medicaid expansion and reiterated his opposition multiple times during his successful reelection campaign last year.
The measure now heads to the Senate, which is also working on its own version of an expansion bill, as lawmakers consider making Mississippi the 41st state to expand Medicaid.
Authored by new House Speaker Jason White, R-West, and McGee, the bill would expand Medicaid eligibility to 138% of the federal poverty level or about $20,000 annually for an individual. The bill contains a work requirement for recipients of Medicaid expansion, but states that the expansion would go into effect even if the federal government does not approve the work requirement.
“Finding affordable access to health care is not only compassionate, but it is a smart investment in our workforce,” White said in a press conference after the floor vote. “As this bill is transmitted to the Senate for their consideration, I want to acknowledge that they, too, are drafting legislation that will provide health care accessibility options … Today we have sent them a conservative plan that addresses our shared goal to provide health care coverage for hardworking, low-income Mississippians.”
White expressed optimism the governor would sign the bill, saying he believed Reeves recognizes the importance of expanding health care access. Reeves has vehemently opposed Medicaid expansion, calling it “welfare” and “Obamacare.”
“A healthy workforce projects to a healthy economy,” White said. “… I'm not anticipating a veto at this point. I'm anticipating a business-minded, reasonable governor who weighs all options and all things and I think he is just that — in spite of what others may think.”
McGee in the press conference said: “Moving beyond a decade of simply saying ‘no' to finding a workable solution to health access takes effort. But it's a task I believe lawmakers from both parties in both chambers are up for … Most importantly I'm excited about the hundreds of thousands of working Mississippians that now and in the future could have a way toward a better, healthier quality of life.”
The federal government pays 90% of the cost for those covered by Medicaid expansion. Various studies have concluded Medicaid expansion in Mississippi would be a boon for the state economy and provide health care coverage for about 200,000 Mississippians — primarily the working poor. For the first four years, there is projected to be no cost to the state because of $600 million in additional federal funds, offered as an incentive to expand Medicaid.
The bill also has a built-in repealer, meaning the program would automatically end after four years — unless the Legislature chooses to renew it. This likely made it more palatable to Republicans on the fence.
McGee called it a “free pilot program” during a committee meeting and said “if it doesn't work out, if we decide that our health outcomes have not improved, if it costs too much for the state, if for any reason we do not believe that it is doing the things that we want it to do, the program will simply repeal in 2029.”
Unlike the proposal Senate leaders say they are crafting, the House bill would not make expansion contingent on the Biden administration approving the work requirement. That's important, since during the Biden administration CMS has rescinded work requirement waivers previously granted under the Trump administration, and has not approved new ones.
Every lawmaker who voted against the measure was a Republican. Several of those lawmakers refused comment after the vote, including Reps. Greg Haney, R-Gulfport; Stacey Hobgood-Wilkes, R-Picayune and Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville.
Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, voted against the expansion bill, but said that could change if the measure is improved.
“I'm not convinced that the work component is as solid as they are saying it is,” Kinkade said. “I think this is a step in the right direction, and the conversation is going in the right direction on what we are trying to accomplish, but I was just not ready to vote for this measure right now. The narrative has got to change.”
Rep. Jill Ford, R-Madison, said, “It was an easy No vote for me … I represent one of the most conservative constituencies in the state, and my constituents do not support this. This was not about me. It was about the will of my constituents.”
On the other end of the spectrum, all the Democrats in the House, such as House minority leader Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, voted for the proposal.
“I kind of felt like it was going to be a great day,” Johnson said. Driving to the Capitol Wednesday morning, he said, he reminisced with former House Democrat leader Bobby Moak about how long they had been working to expand Medicaid.
While Johnson said he wished the bill included components of the House Democrats' plan to provide more private insurance options for people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid expansion, he said he told his fellow Democrats he would vote for the Republican bill and believed that it would help thousands of Mississippians.
Tamara Grace Butler-Washington, D-Jackson, is a freshman House member who worked years ago for the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program touting the need for Mississippi to expand Medicaid.
“It is a momentous occasion, especially for a freshman legislator to see this, knowing for how long it has been an issue,” she said.
Both Johnson and Butler-Washington praised the leadership of the House for passage of the bill.
Speaker White acknowledged his House colleagues for the overwhelming vote, his Republican colleagues for “strong support on an issue we have neglected for so long,” and the Senate for also drafting expansion legislation.
“In most uncomfortable times is where we make our best marks,” White said at the conclusion of the press conference.
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