When naming the poster child for irresponsible leadership on covid-19, there are plenty of governors to choose from. You could make a strong case for South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). But the mistakes of another Republican governor, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, haven’t gotten nearly enough attention. Until, that is, a disastrous appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Host Jake Tapper opened the interview by asking Reeves to respond to President Biden’s callout of the state in a speech Thursday: “In Mississippi, children are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B, polio, tetanus and more,” said the president. “I propose a requirement for covid vaccines, and the governor of that state calls it, quote, ‘a tyrannical-type move.’”

Reeves tried to dodge by distinguishing between the vaccines at issue. “It is unique to kids and their ability to go to our public schools. It’s not vaccines mandated in the workplace,” he told Tapper. “This is an attack by the president on hard-working Americans and hard-working Mississippians who he wants to choose between getting a jab in their arm and their ability to feed their families.”

First of all, if a vaccine mandate violates fundamental freedoms, surely it’s more despicable to impose it on children. Regardless, Reeves’s argument is nonsense. Those mandates are “unique to kids” because children can receive those vaccines. If the Food and Drug Administration cleared the coronavirus vaccines for all children tomorrow, does anyone believe Mississippi Republicans would suddenly support a mandate? Not a chance.

The cost of covid incompetence is clear. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you,” Tapper said, “Mississippi this week became the state with the worst number of coronavirus deaths per capita. In fact, if Mississippi were its own country, you would be second in the world only to Peru in terms of deaths per capita. That’s a horrible, horrible, heartbreaking statistic.”

Trapped by the numbers, Reeves avoided engaging the facts. He replied that cases have fallen in his state in recent days (as they have in many other delta variant hot spots). “Unfortunately, fatalities is a lagging indicator when it comes to the virus. It is a lagging indicator. And so timing has as much to do,” Reeves said, “with that statistic that you used as anything else.”

Yes, deaths are a lagging indicator, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen. (And the improvement in case numbers could reflect the recent increase in vaccinations in response to the delta surge.) Nor should a governor — who professed that “my heart breaks for all 9,000 Mississippians that have passed away” — downplay those deaths. That Reeves would dismiss these deaths as bad “timing” says plenty about what Republican governors value — optics over lives.

You might think Reeves would be reluctant to speak out against a public health mandate, given his record on the subject. When covid first hit the state last year, Reeves asked Mississippians to trust in the “power of prayer.” On the tail end of last summer’s surge, he issued a mask mandate in August 2020. Within two months, he lifted it, only to reinstate it a few months later after cases rose again.

Certainly, Reeves is not unaware of the vaccines’ effectiveness. “The best thing that Americans can do … is to talk to their doctor about potentially getting the vaccine,” he told Tapper. “In our state,” he said, some 89 percent of those hospitalized and 87 percent of deaths “are actually coming from those who were unvaccinated.”

So if resisting mandates has failed again and again, and if the steep toll of stalled vaccination rates is obvious for all to see, what is the problem with a vaccine mandate?

That’s not a question Reeves wants to answer. “What we ought to be talking about,” he told Tapper, “is what can we do to minimize the deaths going forward.” To answer that question, let’s look at the states — those “laboratories of democracy.” According to seven-day rolling averages, as of Sunday, the five states with the highest per capita covid death rates are all governed by Republicans, as are 12 of the top 13. Reeves may protest that “this virus is not just attacking Republicans in red states,” but under Republican leaders in red states, there are too many needless deaths. Politicians like Reeves have prioritized their political views over their constituents’ lives — and those constituents have paid the price.