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As COVID-19 Surges, Mississippi Hospital 'Days Away' From Turning Away Patients

DON GONYEA, HOST:

The Mississippi hospital system could be on the brink of failure. That's according to a health official at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss. The reason - a fast-rising number of COVID infections. This past week, the state has seen more than 18,000 new cases with more than 1,400 people hospitalized and ICU beds running out. Patients are now being moved to hospitals in nearby states. To handle the influx, the University of Mississippi Medical Center on Friday opened a field hospital in one of its parking garages staffed by out-of-state nurses and doctors.

To tell us more, we reached Dr. LouAnn Woodward. She's vice chancellor of the medical center, and she joins us from Jackson. Hello.

LOUANN WOODWARD: Hello. Thank you for having me on today.

GONYEA: Can you first describe the scene in your hospital right now and tell us what ultimately drove the decision to open up this field hospital inside a parking structure?

WOODWARD: So the scene here in our hospital and in all hospitals across the state is really very similar. It is a very serious and a very tense situation as we are watching daily new records in our case numbers that are coming out every single day. We are seeing increased numbers of patients that are requiring hospitalization and, of course, increased demand on our ICU beds. And for several weeks now, we've been a very tenuous circumstance. And it was about a week ago, I think, when we hit a point actually of having no ICU beds available in the state.

Since we hit that point, there have been moments, of course, when an ICU bed has opened up, but the number of patients that are waiting to fill that ICU bed is always higher than the number of beds that we have available. So we've been busily working to erect a field hospital in the lower level of one of our parking garages here on the campus. They have beds in there to provide an overflow at a pop off for some of the beds that, otherwise, our hospitals are full and we cannot provide.

We've got patients that are backing up in our own facility here, as well as facilities all across the state in the emergency departments, patients receiving treatments in waiting rooms. It is quite a dire situation for us.

GONYEA: A colleague of yours, Dr. Alan Jones, said this week that with infections rising at this rate, the state hospital system could fail in anywhere from five to 10 days. Do you agree with that assessment?

WOODWARD: I do. And what we mean by that - because that sounds so dramatic, but we get to a place where we can no longer take transfers, where we have to turn ambulances away. So we are already at capacity. We are over capacity, and people are trying to make room.

As I mentioned earlier, they're boarding patients in the emergency departments. Patients are in the hallways. This medical center is the only academic medical center in Mississippi. We're the only children's hospital. We're the only Level I trauma center, the only place that does transplants. And it is simply part of our normal business that we take a lot of transfers from other hospitals all around the state. And to realize that we may be days away from no longer being able to say yes but, in fact, having to say we can't take anymore is very uncomfortable for us.

GONYEA: I want to ask you about the patients now seeking treatment. There have been reports in the region and nearby states of much younger and previously healthier patients now checking into hospitals. Is that the case where you are at the University of Mississippi Medical Center?

WOODWARD: Yes, it absolutely is. More than 90% of the patients that we are seeing that are very sick, that are requiring hospitalization, that have COVID are unvaccinated. There isn't anybody that really should feel that because of their preexisting state of health or their age, that they are somehow protected and safe from potentially being a victim to this virus. The strongest and the best thing, of course, that anybody and everybody can do is get vaccinated. But we're even seeing patients who have been vaccinated be diagnosed with COVID, but they are not the ones that are critically ill.

GONYEA: And it's worth noting that the state of Mississippi has - I think it's the second-lowest vaccination rate in the country at this point.

WOODWARD: That's right. If you look at all of our eligible citizens who could be vaccinated, you know, we are still at a point of being somewhere in the mid-30s.

GONYEA: Let me broaden this out a little bit. We're already into a new academic year for many schools in Mississippi. And the state health department reports more than a thousand students and teachers have already tested positive. Are you concerned about an influx of children? And are you seeing evidence of that yet?

WOODWARD: Yes, we are seeing now more children with COVID that require hospitalization than we had at prior peaks. That along with the fact that schools are gearing up and getting back in full swing right now is alarming.

GONYEA: The state's governor, Tate Reeves, has been clear that he will not be enacting a statewide mask mandate or require mask wearing in schools. Just your reaction to that.

WOODWARD: Mississippi is a tough state to make mandates in. The citizens in this state typically do not respond favorably to mandates. And I have a lot of respect for the governor. He is in a tough situation. However, I would say, considering the numbers that we're seeing and the way this situation is evolving, I believe that we need some sort of mandate for our schools and our kids that are in schools. You know, at this point, all the children that are under 12 aren't even eligible for the vaccination. And we need to do everything we can do to protect those children.

GONYEA: That was Dr. LouAnn Woodward. She's vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., which just opened a field hospital to deal with overflow COVID patients. Dr. Woodward, thank you for your time.

WOODWARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.