The spread of COVID-19 has imperiled the state’s largest hospitals, filling the ICUs to capacity and forcing difficult transfers, delays and care prevention. At the same time, Mississippi’s 151 school districts face hard choices about how to reopen safely. Photo courtesy UMMC
“Yesterday, five of our biggest hospitals in the state had zero ICU beds. Zero. An additional four had 5% or less. An additional 3 had less than 10%. Our biggest medical institutions who take care of our sickest patients have no room,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs warned today, without a drop of his usual warmth.
Hours later, the Mississippi State Department of Health announced 703 new cases of COVID-19, paired with the catastrophic new highs of hospitalizations: 686 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 fill the state’s hospitals, with 255 additional suspected cases. Beyond the new infections, 13 Mississippians lost their lives to complications from coronavirus yesterday, with three new deaths discovered in prior infections. That was the day after Monday’s report of 30 fatalities, Mississippi’s all-time one-day peak.
Dobbs spoke at the University of Mississippi Medical Center this morning among a panel of Mississippi’s leading health-care experts, including Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of UMMC. “Mississippi went from shelter-in-place to wide open,” Woodward said, regardless of whether the decision was “official or unofficial.”
Woodward painted a grim portrait of the situation at Mississippi’s largest hospital. "At the medical center, we are full. Many days we have had more patients than we have rooms,” Woodward said.
The result of that capacity cascades down to virtually everyone who needs care, forcing transfers, emergency-room holds, delays in care and an end to many important procedures defined as elective.
Read breaking coverage of COVID-19 in Mississippi, plus safety tips, cancellations, more in the JFP's archive.
Dr. Alan Jones, assistant vice chancellor at UMMC, explained the situation bluntly. “Mississippi is right in the eye of the storm,” with all of its metrics trending toward disaster. “We've had to not accept transfers of COVID patients. We've had to not accept transfers of non-COVID patients,” Jones said. "Our people are tired. Our resources are stretched thin."
The experts present at the conference made it clear that situations just like the one unfolding at the state’s only Level 1 trauma center are being replicated across Mississippi. "We are speaking for the health-care workforce in the state of Mississippi. We are begging, and we are asking for the people of Mississippi to get on board with us," Woodward said.
Woodward made it clear that the shelter-in-place order was effective at blunting the curve in the initial days of coronavirus, though she stopped short of calling for a return to shelter-in-place. The vice chancellor repeated her assertion from an earlier interview with the Jackson Free Press: “We cannot shelter in place through the duration of this pandemic.” But without drastic action, the gathered experts warned all of Mississippi’s plans for reopening would be for naught.
The accomplishments of Mississippi’s initial shelter-in-place order have been wiped out, Dobbs lamented. “We sacrificed a lot in those three weeks, and we've given it all back and then some.”
‘You Have One Month’
Equally concerning are the state’s plans for reopening schools in August, a decision Gov. Tate Reeves said at yesterday’s press conference he was 100% committed to and which President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday had to happen.
Dr. Anita Henderson, president-elect of Mississippi’s branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics, warned today that Mississippi has “about one month to get things under control in order to get our children to school.”
Dr. Dobbs acknowledged that each of Mississippi’s 151 school districts would have to make its own decisions and plans for reopening, as well as what safety precautions to take in defense of their children’s safety and health. “Every school district has a lot of autonomy,” he said. “... We’ve been giving them recommendations on what can be done safely. It’s not going to be a one-size mandate for the whole state.”
“I would encourage parents to let their district leaders know what they want,” Dobbs added, suggesting that it might be up to ad hoc coalitions of parents, teachers and administrators to weave a patchwork of plans for school districts across Mississippi.
Dobbs and Henderson floated common ideas for transmission reduction, including social distancing, mask-wearing and the suspension of extracurricular activities.
Henderson acknowledged that transmission and infection in Mississippi’s schools was a foregone conclusion. “We know there’s going to be risk. We know children are going to get sick.”
“Schools have been preparing for this for a long time,” Dobbs said. But it’s unclear if any school districts have meaningful plans for a situation as dire as the summer spread has proved to be. Previously, many expected the summer heat and humidity to dissipate the virus before a possible fall resurgence, although the Jackson Free Press reported contradictory evidence and testimony earlier in May.
Shortly after the press conference, the Rankin County School District sent out the first of many expected updates on the coming school year to its anxious parents. In-person classes are scheduled to begin on Aug. 10.
Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Email state reporter Nick Judin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @nickjudin