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Mississippians on Ventilators at All-Time High as State Breaks COVID-19 Death Record

Former Mississippi lawmaker Nolan Mettetal, who retired this year after serving since 1996, died of COVID-19 yesterday. He is among at least 912 Mississippians who have died of the virus this month. Mettetal/Facebook

More Mississippians are now on ventilators than at any other time since the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived in the Magnolia State in March. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported Monday that 201 intubated patients were relying on the machines to breathe, surpassing the summer high of 197 patients on ventilators on Aug. 8.

COVID-19 hospitalizations overall climbed to new highs in the days after Christmas as health officials reported 85 more deaths from the virus—breaking the previous one-day record of 79 on Dec. 22. The number MSDH reported today includes deaths from earlier dates, Dec. 15-28, which is not unusual.

MSDH reported 101 new COVID-19 hospitalizations over a two day period, with the total rising from 1,239 on Dec. 26 to 1,340 yesterday, including the 201 patients on ventilators. During the summer peak, total confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations never surpassed 989. But health officials do not expect the situation to improve any time soon.

“Sadly, Mississippi is in (the) process of activating crisis standards of care,” Mississippi State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said in a Christmas Eve tweet.

Longtime Lawmaker Among the Dead

Among those who died over the holidays so far is former Mississippi lawmaker Nolan Mettetal, who served in the Mississippi Senate from 1996 to 2012 and in the Mississippi House from 2012 to January 2020 after he decided not to run for re-election last year.

Mettetal, a 75-year-old resident of Sardis in Panola County, died yesterday. Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced his death on Twitter, praising his “personal character” and “statesmanship.”

The longtime lawmaker died in Oxford at Baptist Memorial Hospital of North Mississippi—a hospital that is doing better than most across the Magnolia State. The hospital reported 16 ICU beds open yesterday, accounting for about 20% of all available in the state. Elsewhere, reality is more grim as hospitals struggle with dwindling or depleted health care resources.

Crisis Care in Mississippi Hospitals

In Jackson yesterday, the University of Mississippi Medical Center had 13 critically ill patients waiting for ICU beds to become available and just 28 regular staffed beds remained.

UMMC is among dozens of hospital systems statewide that have run out of ICU beds, with only 87 remaining across Mississippi. 

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, seen here during a July press conference, said hospitals across the state are taking “extreme measures” to deal with the overwhelming onslaught of critical COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy UMMC

Last week, Dr. Dobbs said some hospitals have begun implementing extreme measures to deal with the shortage, including housing two patients in ICU rooms built for one.

“We’ve actually had to institute a plan where hospitals had to admit patients whether they had room or not,” the state health officer said during a Dec. 23 press conference. “They just have to find a place for them. We’ve had people die in rural areas, sadly, because they did not have access to referrals for critical care. So we’ve just had to basically put the pressure on our health partners to make sure they take care of everybody as best they can.”

Though hospitals are dealing with bed shortages, they are not currently facing a shortage of ventilators, an early pandemic concern that drove the federal government to mobilize various industries to mass produce the machines in the spring.

‘Do Your Part’

The state’s top physician said MSDH has repeatedly traced outbreaks back to social gatherings including gender reveal parties, family dinners, cheerleading competitions and church services. 

Over and over again, Dobbs said last week, surges in COVID-19 cases have followed holidays, including Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween and most recently Thanksgiving, when health officials warned that small Christmas funerals would follow large Turkey Day gatherings.

Now, health officials fear a surge-upon-a-surge scenario will follow December’s holiday parties, family gatherings and New Year’s events—further compounding the stress on a health care system already under historic duress.

“The state’s COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to outpace our healthcare resources—reaching record numbers! Do your part to stop these numbers from skyrocketing into the New Year,” Dobbs tweeted yesterday evening, urging people to gather in “small groups only” and “outdoors if at all.”

Earlier this month, Dobbs predicted 1,000 Mississippians would die this month unless the state took immediate action to slow the spread. With three reporting days left, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 912 Mississippians in December, making it the state’s deadliest month yet.

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