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Responses To Coronavirus Outbreak Vary Greatly In The American South

As more states order residents to stay at home to combat spread of the coronavirus, Mississippi and Florida are taking a different approach.

Medical professionals sanitize their facemasks prior to storing them away on March 23, 2020. They were preparing to collect specimens for coronavirus testing at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson, Miss. // AP, Rogelio V. Solis

Updated 2:46 p.m. ET

Louisiana has emerged as a hot spot for the spread of coronavirus, with nearly 2,305 cases of COVID-19 and 83 reported deaths.

"Our rate of growth is faster than any state in the country," Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said during a televised address this week.

He warns the crisis has overwhelmed Louisiana's ability to combat the spread of the disease, and care for the sick. And in contrast to neighboring states, Louisiana is imposing tight restrictions on movement and economic activity.

"I know this is completely the opposite of what we're used to and how we live in Louisiana," Edwards said. "It's a major adjustment, but it is necessary. Stay home; stop the spread; save lives."

His message is in sharp contrast to neighboring Mississippi.

"We're not gonna make rash decisions simply because some other states decide to do things," said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who has been in self-isolation in the governor's mansion since returning from a trip to Spain on March 13. He's been answering coronavirus questions submitted via live chats on Facebook.

"Eric Worth says 'China did a lockdown and it was good for them. Why can't Mississippi?' Well Eric I'm going to tell you that Mississippi is never going to be China," Reeves responded.

A conservative free-market Republican, Reeves says he didn't want to take actions that would do more harm than good. He closed public schools, and this week issued an executive order limiting nonessential gatherings to 10 people, suspending in-restaurant dining, and curtailing visits to nursing homes and hospitals. Other directives remain voluntary.

"You must stay home as much as you can," Reeves urged. "Do not go out if you can possibly avoid it."

That's not enough for some Mississippi cities. Oxford and Tupelo, for instance, have ordered residents to stay home, and limited nonessential business.

"We're trying to save lives," says Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, a Democrat.

He says there's been an unfortunate political debate around social distancing practices.

"Some people in leadership, some people in media, unfortunately, called this a hoax and encouraged people not to take it seriously," Shelton says. "That's still lingering."

Mississippi State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs acknowledges too many people are disregarding calls for social distancing.

"We have reports of people still congregating in mass around weddings, around funerals and going to church," Dobbs said. "If you're piled up outside of a retail store trying to get supplies, that's not social distancing. Please do everything you can to stay out of congregated groups."

In a region where people often work across state lines, or have family in a neighboring state, medical experts say the different messages can confound efforts to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus.

Still governors have been reluctant to order statewide lockdowns.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has called for "surgical" approaches tailored to different regions of his diverse state.

"These blunt measures, you wouldn't want to do them on a community where the virus hasn't spread through the community," DeSantis said, citing the potential negative economic impact.

"People are gonna go out of business; people are gonna lose their jobs; there's gonna be upheavals in their lives," DeSantis said. "That is something that we should not do flippantly."

Officials in Birmingham, Ala., have issued a shelter-in place order, but Republican Gov. Kay Ivey says a statewide lockdown is not coming.

"The safety and well-being of Alabamians is paramount," Ivey said. "However, I agree with President Trump, who thinks that a healthy and vital economy is just as essential to our quality of life."

"It would be very shortsighted of us to get back to economic recovery, and people start getting sick again," says Alabama physician and former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. "We'd be back in the same place that we are."

She says borders don't really matter with the coronavirus, and has an analogy the Gulf states should understand.

"It's like having a Category 4 hurricane that has entered into the Gulf of Mexico," Benjamin says. "We don't prepare by geography. We don't prepare by county or by city or even by state. We prepare for the whole region because we know that storm's going to hit."

She says it's not a matter of if it will make landfall, but when, and how strong.

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