The state is seeing the nation’s second highest rate of current hospitalizations per Covid-19 case, in addition to being tied for the second highest per capita hospitalization rate. The two metrics point to an increasing strain on the hospital system.

Mississippi currently has the second highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the U.S., as the state enters its fifth day without releasing new case counts or data trends.

Hospitalization data has been the only new data released since June 19, when the Mississippi Department of Health issued new case numbers for June 17 and released a statement apologizing for data delays saying that “the agency is working to address legacy software issues impacting its ability create detailed reports.” Though technical problems have lately delayed daily reports, only once before now – June 11 – has the agency completely forgone daily numbers.

As of Friday, Mississippi saw its peak hospitalization of confirmed COVID-19 cases at 516. Confirmed and suspected cases – both require hospital resources for isolation, bed space devoted to coronavirus care and health care worker protective equipment – accounted for 689 hospitalized patients.

Total hospitalized patients, confirmed and suspected cases, jumped to 710 – tied with June 11 for the most ever – Monday morning after dipping to 662 on Saturday, according to the health department’s limited data released. The state’s overall hospitalization rate stands at 239 per million residents with 3 percent of state COVID cases currently hospitalized – both second highest in the U.S., according to national data from The COVID Tracking Project.

Early on in the pandemic, Mississippi saw the highest cumulative rate of hospitalizations per positive case – when more than 30 percent of all COVID cases had been hospitalized – but has since successfully brought that rate down to about 15 percent. But now, the state is seeing the nation’s second highest rate of current hospitalizations per case, in addition to being tied for the second highest per capita rate. The two rates are different metrics, but both point to the same problem – an increasing strain on the hospital system, as echoed by the state’s top health official.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs on Thursday said that the state was seeing “significant stress” on the health care system after warning about growing hospital pressure for weeks, particularly in central Mississippi. “It’s very possible that someone is going to have a heart attack and they’re going to show up at the hospital and there’s not going to be a ventilator,” he said, reiterating that ongoing community spread, and the hospitalizations that spawn from it, are due to lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines and suggestions to wear masks.

Though previously telling reporters that he will get more compliance by encouraging rather than requiring masks, Gov. Tate Reeves said last week that he would not take more community mask mandates off the table. 

Looking at the current total COVID-19 hospitalizations per capita, Mississippi falls behind only Arizona, which has reported new case surges this month, and is tied with Washington D.C. Using current hospitalizations with confirmed cases alone, Mississippi ranks third most in the nation for per capita hospitalizations.

Using another metric – current hospitalization rate per COVID-19 case, essentially the percent of all COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized – Mississippi ranks second overall, behind only Arizona, based on confirmed and suspected hospitalization cases. Using confirmed alone, Mississippi ranks ninth currently. This data cannot be analyzed based on current active or recent cases, because that data has not been released by the state.

Historically though, since the early hospitalization rate spike in April, Mississippi has had relatively flat hospital use until this month, to the point where both Gov. Reeves and Dobbs said that the state had successfully “flattened the curve,” meaning reduced the number of cases enough to not overwhelm the hospital system. But since Memorial Day, new cases, both daily and as a rolling average, have reversed previous flat or downward trends with new peaks and upward trends despite average tests trending down, and hospitalizations have followed along.

Health care workers, including Dr. Alan Jones who heads the emergency department at University of Mississippi Medical Center, expressed worry during re-opening plans about a resurgence in cases and hospitalizations. 

Despite the recent influx of hospitalizations, COVID intensive care units and ventilator-use have remained relatively stable, but have increased for non-COVID patients in recent weeks as average hospital use, trauma care and surgeries return to normal, resulting in overall low availability, according to Dobbs. As of Sunday, national trackers show the state’s ICU availability in the low range, at 29 percent, tied for eighth lowest in the U.S.

Without new case totals, Mississippi Today used the most recent average new cases, 319 per day, to estimate total cases at 21,917. Even without adding these and leaving the last known total, 20,641 as of June 18, both hospitalization rate metrics rank in the top three in the nation. At last count, Mississippi estimated 79 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the state had recovered.

Editor’s note: Five minutes after this story posted Monday, MSDH updated new case information for the last five days of missing data, totaling 1,646 new cases for “Five days of combined COVID-19 positive tests results reported to MSDH as of 6 p.m. yesterday.” This averages 329 new cases per day, but exact case counts for each missing day have not been provided. Check our data page for more updates

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.