It was the end of January when Stephanie Ulrich found her son, Wyatt, unresponsive in his crib. Less than a year old, the infant shivered just beneath consciousness, pale and clinging to life.
“I got up and was making some coffee. I could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. And finally I said … I’m just going to make sure that he’s OK. I tried, and tried, and tried to wake him up, and he would not. He wouldn’t even budge. He could barely open his eyes,” Ulrich explained to the Mississippi Free Press in an interview.
Panicked, she reached out to a friend—a neonatal intensive-care unit nurse. Her friend advised her to try scraping Wyatt’s soles and rubbing his sternum. “I sent (a video) to her, and that’s when she said ‘you need to go to the hospital right now.’ That was the scariest moment. I thought for sure he’s not going to wake up,” Ulrich said. Wyatt had COVID-19, and the virus brought him close to the edge.
Ulrich rushed Wyatt to the hospital, the beginning of an ordeal that would last for months. Her son survived his diagnosis, in and out of hospitals as the cascading effects of the virus worked its way through his system. But it continues to weigh upon the infant, already battling a congenital airway condition that softens his larynx. His COVID-19 diagnosis and its lingering damage have made every part of his life and recovery that much harder.
This mother and her son are far from alone in their experience.
“When you think about the population as a whole, a lot of people have a preexisting condition—a lot of children. Whether it’s cancer or heart disease, these are the children that need to be protected. You would never look at a child and say: ‘Oh, you have a congenital heart defect. Well, you’re not worth it. It doesn’t matter if COVID kills your child.’”
‘Both the Best and Worst in People’
Mississippi’s COVID-19 crisis is reaching levels beyond anything the state has previously seen, with an onslaught of new cases in virtually every setting. Schools find themselves closing as soon as they open as entire districts see their newly relaxed coronavirus strategies buckling under the weight of the delta variant. Hospitals are faring even worse; as of Monday morning, every single staffed intensive-care unit bed in the state is full.
But the situation has yet to reach its peak. Over the weekend, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 6,912 new cases of COVID-19 for the weekend, a clear sign that the delta surge is growing further.
“Keep in mind,” warned State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs on social media, “this will translate into around 500 new hospitalization(s) in coming days, and we have ZERO ICU beds at Level 1-3 hospitals, and we have >200 patients waiting in ERs for rooms.”
Every metric tells a similar story: a wave is growing beyond the winter peaks, swallowing up the state in a surge that threatens every resident. Hospital bed availability has reached such a nadir that their hospital transfer allocation has now been centralized under Mississippi Med-Com, part of MSDH’s system of care measures. The state’s test positivity rate is now upwards of 20%, a warning sign that the pandemic is growing even faster than the state’s ability to track it.
In a message to the Singing River Health System staff, CEO Lee Bond described the hospital situation in the starkest terms yet seen in the pandemic. “Our situation is indescribable,” Bond wrote, “as we bear witness to both the best and worst in people. Some of us will forever have the traumatic images of human suffering burned into our minds while fighting to save lives alongside one another.”
Singing River, like every other hospital in the state, faces the reality of a health-care environment with zero ICU beds and an overpacked emergency room. The coming week promises no relief, but one milestone is looming. Somehow, in the midst of it all, as Mississippi’s pandemic rises beyond even peaks of its winter surge, the state is less than a week away from the expiration of the governor’s State of Emergency order.
Bailey Martin, the governor’s press secretary, assured the Mississippi Free Press today that the governor would “consider every option.” But with the pandemic rampaging across the state, Gov. Tate Reeves has neither returned to his pandemic press conferences nor even confirmed that the State of Mississippi would continue to acknowledge the ongoing emergency facing its hospitals and population.
‘I’ve Been Told That I’m a Child Abuser’
If you ask enough people, you’ll eventually hear that what happened to Stephanie Ulrich was impossible. Kids don’t get COVID-19, they’ll lecture. And if even if they can get it, it’ll pass with just the sniffles and a few days out of school. Even if it’s serious, well, with preexisting conditions, what do you expect? The excuses are fractal, every justification branching into a thousand others, any road that draws the conversation further away from a conclusion that should be painfully obvious: COVID-19 is a terrible disease for a child to have.
Today, Liz Sharlot, communications director at MSDH, told the Mississippi Free Press that the as of August 6, the state had 15 pediatric hospitalizations, five of which were in intensive-care units, with three of those on life support.
Ulrich has more exposure to the reams of disinformation spreading across social media than most. She has been an advocate for her children on TikTok, and her videos of her son Wyatt just prior to his hospitalization with COVID-19 have received millions of views. The attention has come with egregious abuse.
In July, Ulrich signed her children up for the ongoing Moderna vaccine trials, an effort that will provide clinical data needed to approve the shot for children between the ages of 6 months to 11 years old. To call the trial an experiment is an enormous stretch; the children are receiving the same vaccines that have been given to hundreds of millions of individuals across the globe. But that didn’t stop the attacks.
“I’ve been told that I’m a child abuser, that my kids are gonna die—that I’m killing them, that somebody needs to call Child Protection Services on me. I mean, it’s been insane. I’ve read comments that said ‘if you don’t want to be a mother anymore, just say that.’” Some of the threats have translated into action. individuals have reported Ulrich to CPS, though the agency quickly discarded the investigation.
Beyond the abuse is denialism, a persistent inability to face the reality that Ulrich has lived all year. “I’ve had people say that the government is trying to control the population, that the PCR tests are fake, that (Wyatt) never had COVID; it was probably RSV or the flu, and the doctors are lying to us,” she said.
The tests are real, as was Wyatt’s ongoing struggle with COVID-19. It was not RSV, not the flu, not a conspiracy conjured up by some deep state doctor or the master plan of “Doomsday Dobbs.” But it didn’t matter.
For Teachers, A Harsh Reality
With the most immediate threat to Wyatt’s life past, Ulrich faces the challenge of sending her three children, Elijah, Rowan and Wyatt, to school in the absence of pandemic protections. Schools began in many settings across Mississippi without mask mandates, without quarantine leave for teachers. Many teachers reached out to the Mississippi Free Press to share their fears of packed classrooms filled with unvaccinated students.
“Parents should not be forced to choose between their child’s and their lives. And it’s a sad reality that that’s going on in Mississippi,” Ulrich said. The new school year and the brief lull in the pandemic during late spring and early summer has resulted in a fall semester with almost no virtual options for parents. Those like Ulrich, whose children have immunocompromising conditions that make the virus more dangerous, have had to settle for homeschooling.
“They’re not protecting children, and they are not giving people that need their children protected resources or support,” Ulrich added.
Speaking on background, one Jackson Public Schools teacher explained that utter confusion led up to the 2021 fall semester.
“Beyond my principal, JPS has not really sent out any communication. Honest to God, until August 4, I did not know that masks were going to be mandatory,” the educator said. While masks are mandatory, the teacher explained that personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies were something they had to source for themselves.
“Essentially what we’re talking about here is making personal and financial sacrifices to keep ourselves and students safe and healthy. And the reality is we’re not going to be able to keep students safe and healthy. I mean, we just won’t be able to since we’re not fully virtual,” the JPS teacher said.
In spite of the confusion, JPS compares favorably to some other school districts purely by virtue of following Jackson’s mask mandate. Many others attempted to start school without any real pandemic precautions and found the harsh reality of delta quickly forced their hand. Rankin County School District kicked off its fall semester with a series of packed indoor gatherings, both in school and for extracurricular events.
But just this afternoon, RCSD announced a sudden reversal. Masks are now mandated in all school settings for the next two weeks. RCSD has yet to reveal the amount of infected and quarantined students resulting from the first week’s festivities, but other districts provide instructive examples for what unmitigated spread can resemble.
Lamar County School District started its year before most. And in the first full two weeks back, the district has seen dozens of infected teachers, hundreds of infected students and vastly more quarantines from individual outbreaks. The pace of the new infections has already triggered a two-week virtual semester for numerous Lamar County schools, including Sumrall Middle School, Oak Grove Longleaf Elementary, Lumberton Elementary, Oak Grove High School, Purvis High School and Oak Grove Middle School.
Another teacher from RCSD reached out to the Mississippi Free Press to share an unintended consequence of the district’s lackadaisical planning for the new semester under delta: It convinced them to get vaccinated. “They took our COVID days,” the teacher wrote. “I’m not giving up my (vacation days) or paying when they could’ve mandated masks.”