The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is taking significant steps to combat the possible “tidal wave” of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, throughout the state. UMMC is working on an in-house test for the virus, a tele-health mobile phone, and preparing for the possibility that it may have to expand the number of rooms available for patients with infectious diseases, representatives announced on Wednesday.
“We are ramping up to prepare for the tidal wave of patients we know will hit us,” Dr. Alan Jones, the chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine, said on Wednesday. “Our teams are working all day, every day, focusing on when this reality comes face to face with us, so that we can be as ready as we can be.”
Since the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed the first case of coronavirus last Thursday, the number of COVID-19 positive cases in Mississippi has risen precipitously. Late Wednesday afternoon, South Central Regional Medical Center in Laurel, Miss., announced that a Jasper County man who sought care there had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of known Mississippi cases to 35 across 15 counties.
By Wednesday morning, MSDH had only tested 513 patients who had coronavirus-like respiratory symptoms such as fever, coughing or difficulty breathing. Since the U.S. confirmed its first COVID-19 patient on Jan. 21, the country’s testing capacity has remained limited. All tests in Mississippi are currently conducted at MSDH’s lab. While the U.S. slow-ramps up testing capacity nationwide, UMMC is working to develop its own test.
Federal, State ‘Cavalry’ Not ‘Coming to Help Us’
“Not only do we have the physicians, but we have the scientists necessary to create this test,” Dr. Richard Summers, the associate vice chancellor for research, said at UMMC on Wednesday.
Hospitals nationwide are struggling with a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, which includes face masks, gloves, gowns and face shields. UMMC is taking steps to procure more equipment and conserve its current supply, in part by suspending clinical activities for medical students and cutting the number of caregivers making rounds to care for patients.
UMMC announced that it has also restricted visitation policies to only a limited number of family members. Medical-center officials say it will help reduce the likelihood that health-care workers and patients will come into contact with people who could transmit the virus.
UMMC Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, Dr. LouAnn Woodward, said during Wednesday’s press conference that they are not counting on federal government or state agencies to help them procure the necessary equipment.
“We don’t see that as the cavalry coming to help us. The demand outstrips the supply,” said Woodward, who is also the dean of the UMMC School of Medicine.
UMMC physicians and officials urged Mississippians to help them by practicing frequent hand-washing, taking social-distancing measures like staying at least 6 feet away from other people in public, and staying home as much as possible. If someone has symptoms that they believe could point to the coronavirus, Jones said, they should not come to the emergency room. Instead, they should call their primary provider.
“We need people to allow us to do our job and take care of the sick, sick patients at the emergency department,” Jones said. “If you are not in need of hospitalization, stay away from the ED (emergency department). Most patients just need reassurance and the ability to isolate themselves.”
In a few days, UMMC will launch a smartphone app that will make it easier for residents to screen themselves for COVID-19 without making a visit to a clinic or physician. “You will go to a virtual waiting room and be picked up by a provider, but only for COVID-19 screening,” Jones said.
Medical officials are using such strategies with the goal of lessening the strain on local clinics and emergency rooms, which experts fear could be overrun as the number of cases mount.
‘Schoolchildren Will Be Reading About This 50 Years From Now’
In Hattiesburg, about 90 minutes southeast of the capital city, medical organizations worked with MSDH to convert a local clinic there to one focused solely on diagnosing and treating people with symptoms that could point to the coronavirus. Physicians in the Forrest County college town told members of the press on Monday that they hoped the clinic would divert potential coronavirus patients away from local emergency rooms and other clinics to help avoid spreading the virus throughout Hattiesburg’s health care system.
If necessary, UMMC officials said Wednesday, the medical center can increase its number of negative pressure patient rooms, which can house infectious patients and filter contaminated air out of the hospital’s air-handling system. The hospital currently has 60 such rooms, but can expand to more than 100 if the need arises.
During the press conference, Jones urged Mississippians to take the threat of the virus seriously.
“This is not to be taken lightly,” Jones said. “This will affect us profoundly. This is not another bad flu season. Schoolchildren will be reading about this 50 years from now.”
As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control reported about 8,000 cases in the U.S. and more than 100 deaths. Elderly people and people with pre-existing health conditions are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, experts say. More information on UMMC’s COVID-19 prevention measures is available online at umc.edu/coronavirus.
The Mississippi Free Press has a map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state.