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COVID-19 Hospitalizations Hit Record, But ‘Thanksgiving Acceleration’ Coming in Mississippi

Mississippi hospitals across the state are running out of ICU beds, including the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which only had one ICU bed available on Nov. 29. Photo courtesy UMMC

Mississippi reached a new high for COVID-19 hospitalizations, the State Department of Health reported this morning. Hospitals reported 1,008 patients with the virus and another 238 with suspected infections.

Today’s numbers top the record Mississippi hit at the height of the summer COVID-19 wave, when 989 Mississippians with COVID-19 were hospitalized with confirmed infections alongside 240 with suspected infections. This time, though, health experts do not expect a slowdown anytime soon.

“New record in total COVID hospitalizations. And this is before an anticipated Thanksgiving acceleration,” Dr. Dobbs wrote in his tweet today, which included a chart of current hospitalization figures.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the state also set a new weekend record for COVID-19 cases. MSDH usually reports the week’s lowest numbers on Sunday (which reflects totals from Saturday) and Monday (which reflects totals from Sunday) due to weekend reporting capacity declines. 

Friday, Nov. 20, broke the all-time record with 1,972 cases. But MSDH reported just 779 COVID-19 cases for Saturday, Nov. 21, and 699 for Sunday, Nov. 22. In the days since Thanksgiving, however, the State Health Department has reported the highest numbers for any Saturday or Sunday on record. 

Yesterday, MSDH reported 1,845 new cases, representing not only the worst Saturday for new COVID-19 cases, but the second highest toll on record for any day since the pandemic began.

‘Protect Yourselves and Your Family Now’

It can take days for tests to detect new infections, meaning the weekend numbers reflect infections that began before Thanksgiving gatherings. But the numbers do mean that, for extended families who gathered for Turkey Day dinners, they did so at a time when transmission rates statewide were at an all-time high.

“This is truly serious. Protect yourselves and your family now. And we all know how,” Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted this morning.

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Dr. Dobbs warned about the dangers of large family gatherings this year.

“You’re going to have a lot of sick folks who caught (COVID-19) during Thanksgiving. We know this is the perfect milieu, having young folks and old folks and folks with chronic illness around the table—and then death,” the state health officer said during a sober Mississippi State Medical Association Zoom meeting with fellow physicians on Nov. 12.

MSMA President Dr. Mark Horne concurred with Dobbs.

“We don’t really want to see Mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas. … You’re going to say hi at Thanksgiving, it’s so nice to see you, and you’re either going to be visiting her by Facetime in the ICU or planning a small funeral by Christmas,” Horne said on Nov. 12.

Health experts fear that the holiday shopping season, which kicked off with large crowds of holiday shoppers gathering in stores across the nation for Black Friday, will only exacerbate the already dire situation even before families gather again for the December holidays.

Hospitals Facing Bed, Staff Shortages

In a tweet today, MSDH warned that the state has already returned to “the serious shortage of hospital care that we saw in the summer.

“Mississippians took swift measures to turn that situation around then. We need to do it again now,” MSDH said. “Avoid crowds, keep gatherings small, socially distance and wear a mask.”

Statewide, just 149 of 872 total ICU beds remain available; COVID-19 patients make up a third of current occupants.

During a press conference last week, University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward said UMMC, like other hospitals, is making adjustments to maximize bed capacity. But staff is also a top concern, she said.

“Even if we could line this lobby full of beds, we don’t have the staff to take care of the patients. So those are really the two biggest pain points, physical beds and physical space. And honestly the staffing issue is the highest hurdle,” the UMMC vice chancellor said.

‘So-Called Expert’ Doctors Call for Mask Mandate

At the UMMC press conference, Woodward also called on Gov. Tate Reeves to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying his county-by-county approach was “not working.” 

The next day, she and three other top health-care leaders in the state sent the governor a letter, noting that the governor’s statewide mask mandate that was in effect from Aug. 5 to Sept. 30 “worked well” and that a new one is “vital to maintain the integrity of our health-care system.”

Instead, the governor expanded the county-level mask orders to include an additional 19 counties, bringing the total number of counties with mask orders to 41—half the counties in the state. 

American Academy of Pediatrics Mississippi Chapter President-Elect Dr. Anita Henderson said she is “confident” Gov. Tate Reeves will reimpose a mask mandate “at some point.” Photo courtesy Hattiesburg Clinic.

As he announced those changes last Tuesday, Reeves lashed out at the medical leaders who sent him the letter. He compared their advice to the suggestions he gets in comments on his Facebook page, noting that he gets “lots and lots of advice from lots of well-meaning” individuals.

“But I get frustrated when so-called experts decide that if we just did one more thing, that we could change this,” the governor said last week, swiping at the four doctors, two of whom are women and two of whom are Black.

Mississippi State Medical Association Executive Director Dr. Claude Brunson, Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians President Dr. James Griffin Jr., and American Academy of Pediatrics Mississippi Chapter President-Elect Dr. Anita Henderson joined Henderson on the letter.

“Although we may disagree at the moment, I am confident that the Governor will see the effectiveness of his past statewide mandate and at some point will reimpose it. Masks, distancing and other measures work,” Henderson wrote on Nov. 28.

Mississippi’s seven-day average for daily new COVID-19 infections is now at an all-time high of 1,342—well above the 500 cases the state was average on Sept. 30, the day Gov. Reeves let the mask mandate expire. Today’s average is also higher than the summer wave’s peak of 1,203 daily cases.

“The upcoming winter is going to be difficult for Mississippians,” Woodward, Brunson, Griffin and Henderson wrote in the Nov. 24 letter to Reeves. “We know that wearing masks will help us continuously to grow our economy, allow kids to remain in school, parents to go to work, and most importantly, protect all Mississippians from this deadly virus.”

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