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Science & Medicine

Mississippi's Hospitals Are Overwhelmed. What Will Curb The COVID Surge?

Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse Maggie Bass, left, gives Ayana Campbell, 14, a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at an open COVID-19 vaccination site sponsored by the university and the medical center in the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, July 27. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)
Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse Maggie Bass, left, gives Ayana Campbell, 14, a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at an open COVID-19 vaccination site sponsored by the university and the medical center in the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, July 27. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)

The state of Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. As the Delta variant approached, the state’s health officer sounded the alarm:

“I kind of personally feel like I’m an air traffic controller. And every day, I’m watching two airliners collide,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs said. “And I’m constantly warning to change course and we never do. We’ve got a lot more tragedy on the way.”

Now, Mississippi is reporting record numbers of new COVID cases. Governor Tate Reeves extended a state of emergency that had been set to expire. A doctor at a top hospital warned:

“If we continue that trajectory, within the next 5 to 7 to 10 days, we’re going to see failure of the hospital system in Mississippi,” Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs and COVID-19 clinical response leader at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said.

Today, On Point: The pandemic in Mississippi, and what it will take to turn it around.

Guests

Nick Judin, state reporter for the Mississippi Free Press. (@nickjudin)

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. (@LAWoodwardMD)

Alex Cobb, ICU nurse at the Singing River Hospital in Ocean Springs, MI.

Wayne Rodolfich, superintendent of the Pascagoula-Gautier School District.

Interview Highlights

A picture of the pandemic right now in Mississippi

Nick Judin: “The weekend total was 7,839 new cases. Now that’s, I believe, the highest weekend total we’ve ever had. And the bottom line is cases turn into hospitalizations, turn into intensive care hospitalizations and deaths. So there’s just no sign of a peak until we see the transmission slowing and declining. The state of the hospitals, the state of the schools, none of it is going to improve. So right now, we’re kind of grasping in the dark. We really are in uncharted territory.”

On reaching a breaking point in Mississippi’s hospitals  

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: “When you think about things like the health system will fail, what do we mean? Those are words that sound very dramatic and very dire. But what we mean by that is No. 1 that our capacity is exceeded. And that has actually been the case now for some weeks. This is not new. Our capacity has been exceeded. And you layer on top of that the capacity as a state has been exceeded.

“We are now in a systems of care for transport and transfer across the state of the critical care COVID patients. This is a mandated situation by the state health officer, by Dr. Dobbs. So the capacity has been exceeded. The workforce is fatigued. The workforce is also experiencing their own challenges. On any given day, we may have 50 nurses who are sick themselves. They’re in quarantine. They have family members that are sick.

“They have others that they have to care for. So the fragility of the workforce is something that fluctuates a little bit from day to day to day. And when we get in this position where everybody is full, you have hospitals across the state that are putting out messages to their community and saying, Please do not come to our emergency room. The emergency room is overrun. Please don’t come to the emergency room.

“And you have hospitals where they are having to or considering having to tell ambulances, I cannot take another patient. So that’s kind of what we mean about getting to the breaking point where you just can’t make do any more.”

On factors that led to Mississippi’s COVID crisis 

Nick Judin: “Delta is fundamentally different. I mean, it is so much more infectious. … And in terms of why Mississippi is having the worst possible experience with it, you know, it’s hard to say. We are one of the least vaccinated states in America. I think we’re second or first based on first or second shot. But we’re just seeing, I think, a combination of a much more infectious variant.

“And people really got a taste of freedom after the vaccines came out. And after the transmission slowed from the winter. It felt like we were getting our lives back and it is really difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. So you run into people who are done with these health precautions. And done with putting their lives on hold. But a virus that is much, much more infectious. And the two are creating explosive transmission.”

On reasons why the vaccination rates are so low in the state

Nick Judin: “There is a lot of mistrust and there is a lot of confusion over what to do. And I think there’s a lot of things that people understand that are the common cause of why people don’t get vaccinated. You have the conspiracy theories, and you have the misinformation. But I really feel that one of the most important things to understand about why Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate is we have some of the worst access to health care in the entire United States.

“I mean, we have worse outcomes. We have less people covered by insurance, people paying more for the insurance they do have. And this predates the pandemic. I talked to a lot of people who work out in some of the least vaccinated areas in Mississippi. And what I hear from them is people don’t participate in health care as a culture.

“You go to the doctor when you’re sick. Preventative medicine is a way of life, and it’s not a way of life that everyone shares here. It’s distant, it’s expensive, and it hasn’t been invested in. So without people being invested in having a primary care provider being proactive about their health, you’re going to have a difficult time convincing them to come get you out.”

On what it’s like to intubate a patient, and the rise of COVID in younger patients

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: “When the patient comes to that realization that they are not able to breathe on their own and maintain. Many times they’re unable at that point to speak. But the look in their eyes, there is absolute fear and panic when you’re talking to them. And you’re explaining, We are going to have to put you on a ventilator, we are going to have to intubate you. And put a breathing tube down your throat.

“The patients that are able to hear what you’re saying, it is a sense of panic and just fear in their eyes. Because even at that point when they may not be completely mentating at their full capacity, there is something they understand that they may not come off that vent. And that is just blood chilling. But we are … seeing younger patients. Out of the 141 that we have admitted in our hospital today, 22 are pediatrics. This is our all-time high.

“In the earlier stages with this virus, we just had a handful of pediatric patients. But now, in fact, we are seeing younger patients. We are seeing younger adults. Honestly, exactly what she described. These are young people. They are in many cases, previously healthy. This is unlike our experience with the alpha variant. They are many times previously healthy.

“The runway between being positive, testing positive, getting the virus and testing positive and needing to be hospitalized has been shortened. So the course is more rapid. There is really nobody out there based on age, or baseline health status or any other variable that should feel that they can evade this virus. We are seeing it hit everybody. All ages, all health status. It’s extremely contagious. And this is very different than what we saw before.”

From The Reading List

Mississippi Free Press: “Gov. Reeves For Vaccinations, But Chides Against ‘Virtue-Signaling’ About Mask Need” — “Hours after the worst report of new COVID-19 cases in the pandemic thus far, Gov. Tate Reeves gave Mississippi a full-throated endorsement of vaccinations—but offered inconsistent and hostile messaging on the subject of masks.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.