Dr. LouAnn Woodward had a stark message for Mississippi as she stood in front of the second field hospital opened in a week to treat COVID-19 patients at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in the capital city.
“We as a state, as a collective, have failed to respond in a unified way to a common threat. We have failed to use the tools that we have to protect ourselves, our families, our children and our state,” Woodward said.
The UMMC chief is no stranger to hard conversations in the coronavirus era. Her willingness to demand a greater level of buy-in from statewide leadership preceded the pandemic’s strongest measures, from the earliest—and only—lockdown, to the statewide mask mandate of late 2020.
Now, however, Woodward spoke to all Mississippians, reflecting on a time in the pandemic’s first year where today’s surge would have seemed impossible: a monstrous wave, dwarfing all others, in spite of months upon months of vaccine availability.
“We have an effective and available, safe and free vaccine that we are not using to its fullest capacity. This time last year at press conferences we talked about ‘boy, if we can just get to that place where we’ve got a vaccine, we can get to the other side of this,’” Woodward lamented. “What I have to say to the citizens of Mississippi is we have that vaccine. We have this tool. We have not used it, and this is where we are.”
This is where we are—a refrain heard across the state, from Woodward, from State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs, from nurses and doctors in emergency rooms, intensive-care units and clinics across the state.
Today, another staggering caseload—4,085, the third highest of all time. More Mississippians today are in the hospital with COVID-19 than ever before with 1,623 as of the Mississippi State Department of Health’s last report on Aug. 16. Over a fourth of that number occupy ICUs. More than 300 Mississippians are on ventilators in the same chart. The former peak in winter recedes with every passing day.
Enter Samaritan’s Purse
“Samaritan’s Purse right now is responding to a disaster in Haiti,” Woodward said. “That’s a natural disaster. Their response here in Mississippi today is a disaster of our own making.”
With Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical Christian relief ministry operating the secondary field hospital in one of UMMC’s garages, came rumors that religiously motivated discrimination would follow the organization. On social media, people feared that LGBTQ patients would get substandard care or attempts at conversion before accessing treatment.
In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press today, Melissa Strickland, senior director of communications for Samaritan’s Purse, forcefully denied the rumors and directly affirmed that the organization is committed to nondiscriminatory care.
“Proselytization to any patients is not our purpose and there are certainly no preconditions to hearing about our faith in order to receive treatment,” Strickland said. Prayer, the spokeswoman added, is available for patients upon request only. “We do not initiate proselytization of any patients,” she said.
“There would be no tolerance for someone being denied care. Whether that’s medical care here in Mississippi, or whether that’s food, clean water, shelter, et cetera there is a zero-tolerance policy for anyone saying you don’t get (aid) based on any criteria, including (sexual identity), religious belief or gender identity.”
Samaritan’s Purse does require its employees to sign a statement of faith along evangelical values, including affirming a belief that “marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”
But that statement of faith does not include patients or any preconditions or standards of care. UMMC Director of Communications Marc Rolph confirmed to the Mississippi Free Press that Mississippi Med-Com will assign patients to facilities that Samaritan’s Purse operates, the same as all other medical facilities in the state under MSDH’s system-of-care plan.
Women Burying Their Children
Outside the new field hospital, Woodward implored the people and leaders of Mississippi to listen.
“Our health-care workforce all across the state is traumatized,” she explained. And one pathway alone leads out of the self-imposed torture of the pandemic’s fourth wave. “I implore you, if you have not gotten vaccinated, please do so right away. It is the right thing to do for yourself, for your family, for your state.”
Woodward continued, growing more frustrated with every passing moment. “We do not need any mandates to do the right thing. This is a decision each individual can make,” she continued. “I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years defending Mississippi to colleagues. And I have done that with pride … but our actions over this last year are not easy to defend.”
MSDH data identify 7,916 Mississippians dead from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, a number that Dr. Dobbs has repeatedly asserted is an undercounting, pointing to the much higher excess death count for a clearer perspective of the virus’ toll.
At the press event, Dobbs followed Woodward’s impassioned plea with his own accounting of the strain on Mississippi’s health-care system. “We are in negative status on ICU capacity. We have a workforce that is overtaxed. This resource is going to help in ways that are hard to appreciate immediately,” he said, referring to the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital.
The increasing youth of the population now occupying the state’s hospital beds is a unique horror of the delta wave, Dobbs said: “Instead of seeing women burying their parents we’re seeing women burying their children.”
The state health officer backed vaccinations as the best solution to freedom from COVID hell, but reminded Mississippi that monoclonal antibodies were the best last resort against a new infection. “Monoclonal antibodies will reduce hospitalization by 80% to 90%. You don’t have to be really sick,” Dobbs said.
UMMC opened its own monoclonal antibody clinic yesterday, with signups for free treatment without the need for insurance or a doctor’s visit available at this website. The more Mississippians use the treatment, the more availability could be expanded, Dobbs explained—up to about 80 to 100 slots a day.
In the end, beyond vaccination or post-infection treatment, the state health officer asked for voluntary isolation to slow the spread of delta. “Breathing somebody else’s air indoors is how you get COVID,” he said. “Stop it at the door so it doesn’t visit the rest of your family members.”
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