A surge in coronavirus patients and a shortage of health-care workers and intensive care unit beds have pushed Mississippi’s hospital system to the brink of “failure,” state health officials warned Wednesday, saying drastic federal intervention was needed to help the state grapple with the thousands of new daily infections that have overwhelmed doctors and nurses.
Mississippi is averaging nearly 2,700 new COVID-19 infections a day in the past week — a 54 percent spike in the past seven days, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. New daily infections have climbed to more than 3,000 in the past two days, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health. More than 1,500 people in the state are hospitalized and nearly 400 ICU beds are filled with infected patients. The number of ICU beds filled and ventilators in use in Mississippi have surpassed the winter months, previously the state’s worst period of the pandemic, reported the Clarion Ledger.
Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs at University of Mississippi Medical Center, said at a news conference that the situation had grown so dire that the center in Jackson, Miss., was transforming a floor of one of its parking garages into a 50-bed field hospital to treat COVID-19 patients.
“Since the pandemic began, I think the thing that hospitals have feared the most is total failure of the hospital system,” Jones said. “And if we track back a week or so when we look at the case positivity rate, the rate of new cases, the rate of hospitalizations … if we continue that trajectory within the next five to seven to 10 days, I think we’re going to see failure of the hospital system in Mississippi.”
He added, “Hospitals are full from Memphis to Natchez to Gulfport. Hospitals are full.”
Federal health-care workers requested by the state are expected to arrive Friday, and officials said that 10 additional ICU beds would be made available at VA medical centers in Jackson and Biloxi. State officials announced earlier in the week that there were no ICU beds available in Mississippi.
The temporary field hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center garage — a medical setup usually seen during disasters and wartime — was described by Mississippi Free Press journalist Nick Judin as “one of the last stopgaps between Mississippi and hospital system failure.”
“Mississippi, this is where we are,” he tweeted.
Mississippi has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the country, with a little more than 35 percent of its population fully vaccinated as of early Thursday. State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said at a Wednesday news conference that 97 percent of the people currently hospitalized are not vaccinated.
“I feel like I’m an air traffic controller and every day I’m watching two airliners collide. We’re constantly warning to change course and we never do,” Dobbs said. “We wouldn’t be having the same situation at all if we had a higher vaccination rate. This is a team effort, not just the department of health telling people what to do. I understand people’s desire for individual freedoms, but what one does affects everyone.”
Even with health officials saying its hospital system could collapse in the coming days, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) reiterated Wednesday that the state would not have a mask mandate. Instead, the governor, who has slammed the change in mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “foolish” and “harmful,” tweeted out a list of what the state was requesting to help fight the spike in hospitalizations.
“In spite of the angry rhetoric coming from so many, our emergency management team is doing what it does — we are calmly dealing with an ever-changing environment to meet the needs of Mississippi,” Reeves said.
The health crisis in Mississippi is part of a national predicament that’s largely playing out across the South, where the virus’s delta variant and low vaccination rates are driving record numbers of hospitalizations. The struggle to find enough workers to care for infected patients has emerged as a critical problem in several states during the fourth wave of the pandemic.
The stress placed on health-care workers has played out in Ocean Springs, Miss., where the volume of ICU patients, the majority of whom are unvaccinated, has seemed like what one employee described as “a bad dream.” Ijlal Babar, director of pulmonary and critical care at Singing River Health System on the state’s Gulf Coast, recently told Fortune that vaccine hesitancy has played a role, with one person who was at high risk of being infected telling him that “she would rather die than get the vaccine.”
ICU nurse Jen Sartin had to recently resign from working critical care at Singing River Health System due to the mental and emotional exhaustion of seeing people suffer and die from the virus. Sartin told the Biloxi Sun Herald this month that she had to move out of the unit because she could no longer “take care of patients that I am angry with.”
“I’ve seen more death than I ever thought I would see in my entire life. I’ve held more hands of patients in their last moments when their families couldn’t be by their side. More than I ever thought I would,” Sartin told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday. “And I know this is the ICU and people pass. It shouldn’t be on this level though.”
Sartin added: “It’s just heartbreaking in every way. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s overwhelming.”