Mississippi Doctors in Fear of Hospital System Failure Amid Delta Surge, ICU Shortages

Mississippi's health care system is in dire straits as COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising to the point where hospitals soon won't be able to care for any more patients.

Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate of any state in the U.S. and one of the highest case counts, making for a perfect storm for increased hospitalizations. On Wednesday, the state's largest health care system warned it is on the brink of failing.

"If we continue that trajectory within the next five to seven to 10 days, I think we're going to see failure of the hospital system in Mississippi," Dr. Alan Jones, the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, said during a press conference.

The number of Mississippians being hospitalized for COVID-19 has been on a steady rise since the middle of July, as has the number of patients on ventilators and in the intensive care unit. To help with the influx in cases, the UMMC is constructing a field hospital in a parking lot that can hold a maximum of 50 COVID-19 patients. Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC's vice chancellor, called it a "Band-Aid," in part because staffing the extra beds will still be a challenge.

At the start of the pandemic, many states waived certain requirements so people who left the medical field or were medical students could join the workforce to help reduce the strain on health care workers. More than a year into the crisis, many health care workers are burned out and or have left the medical field to care for their own mental health, exacerbating an already significant problem.

Lee McCall, CEO of the Neshoba County General Hospital, put out an urgent plea to Mississippi Republican Governor Tate Reeves on Tuesday.

"We are overwhelmed with the surge of Covid and understaffed to safely care for our patients. Our incredible staff are holding it together but we are all at our breaking point," McCall tweeted.

Reeves bucked criticism that his administration wasn't being an active player in the COVID-19 response, posting on Facebook that his team is "calmly making decisions based on the best available data to manage the situation and mitigate its impact on our people." He called protecting Mississippi's health care system his "number one goal" and claimed hospitalizations were below the state's peak in August 2020.

But data from the Mississippi Department of Health shows that's not the case. At the end of July 2020, coronavirus hospitalizations peaked at 989 and the August high of that same year was 977. On Monday, they were at 1,410.

In his Facebook message, Reeves acknowledged that a shortage of beds and ventilators—an issue in the early days of the pandemic—wasn't Mississippi's key problem in the current surge. The state lost 2,000 nurses over the last year, according to Reeves, creating a labor shortage. To help alleviate the problem, Reeves said Mississippi asked other states for additional personnel and started contracting with private entities to build up the workforce.

Data shows that the bulk of hospitalizations across the country are among unvaccinated individuals, and Reeves invoked the popular saying that Mississippi is facing a "pandemic of the unvaccinated." Mississippi has seen an uptick in vaccinations in recent weeks and the governor urged people to get vaccinated.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs expects to see hospitalizations rise as the Delta variant spreads and expressed frustration on Wednesday with people who won't get vaccinated. At the press conference, he related his job to being an air traffic controller and spending every day "watching two airliners collide."

"Please be safe! Hospitals and ER's beyond capacity," Dobbs posted on Twitter on Thursday.

Coronavirus patient
A doctor takes care of a patient infected with Covid-19 in the intensive care unit of Lyon-Sud hospital in Pierre-Benite, on September 8, 2021. JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images