Mississippi Enters ‘The Darkest Period’: COVID-19 Skyrockets as Hospital Patients Await Beds

A University of Mississippi health care worker cares for a COVID-19 patient. All hospital beds, including ICU beds, are now full at the Jackson medical center. Photo courtesy UMMC

Exhausted health-care workers faced a worsening situation at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson today as one of the state’s largest hospitals continued to admit patients without enough beds to place them in.

“As of 6:46 a.m. today, UMMC’s bed status is -31 beds, which means that 31 people are admitted but waiting for a bed to become available. Who will be #32 or #33 or #34?,” wrote UMMC Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward, who said all adult ICU beds at UMMC are now full.

Health experts only expect the hospital situation to get worse in the Magnolia State. This morning, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 2,457 new cases of COVID-19, breaking the previous one-day record of 1,972, which the state set on Nov. 20. Statewide, ICU units in at least a dozen hospitals are now full.

“New daily cases have now exceeded 2,000, which has literally been my nightmare,” Woodward wrote this morning. “Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and many others are doing their part. It will be a long time before they recover from the trauma they are living. Vaccine developers are doing their part. We are so close, but we can’t sit back and wait for that.”

Thanksgiving Bump Still to Come

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Mississippi public-health officials predicted that family gatherings for the holiday would lead to large spikes in COVID-19 cases and additional deaths. Grimly, top doctors in the state warned that families that held large Thanksgiving gatherings should plan for small Christmas funerals

Many Mississippi families ignored those warnings, but health leaders say infections reported this week do not yet reflect additional Thanksgiving transmissions. 

During an MSDH press conference yesterday, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said he had “repeatedly” diagnosed people over the past week who became infected after visiting asymptomatic children and grandchildren who did not know they had the virus.

At a UMMC press conference this afternoon, Dr. Woodward said she has been “proud” of how Mississippians have responded over the years to natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes by “showing care and compassion for our fellow man.” But right now, the state is falling short, she said.

University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward, seen here at a press conference last week, urged Mississippians to show the “care and compassion for our fellow man” that she has seen during hurricanes and natural disasters. Screencap courtesy UMMC.

“Early on in this pandemic, I pledged that we would bring all of our resources to bear to fight the pandemic. We have done that,” Woodward said today. “We have brought it all to bear. We have put forward every effort that we can and that we could and we will continue to do that. We are not backing down. … What I fear that people do not understand, however, is that the resources are finite.”

“There gets to a point where we have to say, ‘We don’t have another place to put another patient safely.’ We can’t do it. It gets to a point where we have to say, ‘We don’t have the nursing staff.’ We don’t have it. … There is a point where you have done all that you can manage to do.”

‘The Darkest Period of the Coronavirus’

Today’s record-setting numbers come a day after Gov. Tate Reeves disagreed with Jackson Free Press reporter Nick Judin at a press conference over whether or not Mississippi had already surpassed its summer peak.

“When you say that we are currently exceeding our peak, that’s fundamentally inaccurate. That’s just not true. That’s false, in fact,” the governor told Judin yesterday.

Reeves claimed that, even though confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations were already higher than at the summer peak, the total was slightly lower when including “suspected” cases. 

On the worst day during the summer, July 30, Mississippi recorded 1,775 new cases of COVID-19, and the seven-day daily average for new cases never climbed above 1,203. The daily average yesterday was at an all-time high of 1,410.

Today, that average rose to 1,605. Dr. Dobbs said hospitalizations rose by 145 overnight—the largest increase on record. Hospitalizations and ICU numbers are lagging indicators and often come weeks after cases are first identified.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here at a press briefing last week, claimed yesterday that Mississippi has not surpassed its all-time peak—a claim at odds with public-health officials’ comments and all-time high case numbers. Screencap courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

“There’s no doubt that we’re headed into the darkest period of the coronavirus so far,” DDobbs said during a MSDH press conference today. The state’s top doctor lamented that “a lot of us aren’t playing the role we’re supposed to.”

Dobbs issued a public-health advisory today, urging residents of Mississippians to “avoid any social gathering that includes individuals outside of the nuclear family or household.”

“MSDH recommends that Mississippians only participate in work, school or other absolutely essential activities,” he said. 

Public-health officials have expressed concern about the holiday shopping season. Dobb’s guidance recommends that Mississippians avoid social events, parties, weddings, funerals (“other than close family and preferably outdoors,” it says), sporting events and in-person church services.

Despite Gov. Reeves’ denial yesterday, Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist, said during today’s MSDH press conference that Mississippi has “now exceeded what we thought at the time was the peak of our activity.”

Health Workers ‘Numb, Frustrated and So Very Tired’

Last week, Gov. Reeves lashed out at four top medical leaders in the state, including Dr. Woodward, who urged him in a Nov. 24 letter to reinstate a statewide mask order, calling it “vital to maintain the integrity of our health-care system.”

“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 when asked about the doctors’ letter.

In the two months since Gov. Reeves let the statewide mask mandate that he issued amid the summer surge on Aug. 4 expire, the seven-day average for daily new cases has nearly more than tripled. It was 500 on Sept. 30, the day it ended.

UMMC emergency room nurse Lacey Ward said last week that the summer COVID-19 surge was the first time she questioned her decision to become a nurse. Screencap courtesy UMMC.

Today, Woodward refused to take the bait when asked about Reeves’ “so-called experts” swipe at her and other top doctors in the state.

“People do ask me a good bit about some of the governor’s statement and the governor’s reaction, and I would say there is no gain to be had in me having an antagonistic stance with the governor,” she said. “At the end of the day we’re all on the same page. I don’t know what data inputs he’s getting and what opinions he’s getting. I do believe a statewide mask mandate would be valuable.”

In her morning tweets, Woodward urged Mississippians to avoid gathering in groups or crowds, to keep their hands washed and to stay home if they have symptoms of illness.

“Those of us in health care are numb, frustrated and so very tired,” the UMMC vice chancellor wrote. “I’m a Mississippi girl. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’m proud to be raising my family here. I love Mississippi and her people. I want the best for them and I know WE CAN DO BETTER.”

‘We’re Seeing Collective Denial’

During yesterday’s MSDH press conference, Dr. Dobbs said community leaders need to do more to convince the people who live in their towns and counties to wear masks and follow public-health guidelines.

“I would really just encourage every leader of every type to go ahead and push the message. What I’ve not seen is a groundswell of messaging from all leaders,” the state health officer said. “This is a community issue, and I would like to send out a call: protect your communities, protect your workforce and be brave. Talk about what we know works. 

“Don’t be timid about saying it because you’re afraid of some crazy conspiracy theorist uncle who believes nutty stuff.”

Dobbs said he was “very disappointed” that people are not doing the “simple stuff” to curb COVID-19 transmission.

“I don’t think we’re going to protect ourselves. I think it’s going to be bad,” Dobbs said, predicting that it will take a vaccine to stop the spread in Mississippi. “We’re not seeing collective belief. We’re seeing collective denial.”

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