Daphne-Webster Quinn prepares to test a patient for COVID-19 in Durant, Miss. on Sept. 8, 2020. She contracted the virus herself over the summer. Credit: Vickie L. King/Mississippi Today

Amid a wave of delta variant COVID-19 infections that State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said is “sweeping over Mississippi like a tsunami,” the state Department of Health reported 3,164 new cases on Thursday, the second highest single-day caseloads the state has seen throughout the pandemic.

As of Thursday, there were 1,147 Mississippians hospitalized with COVID-19, with 299 in ICUs and 150 on ventilators. The state is currently averaging 137 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per day.

On Thursday, just eight of 827 total adult ICU beds in Mississippi were available.

This strain on the healthcare system is not sustainable, health care experts warn, and has created an environment where between 30 patients per day on average — and as many as 60 — are receiving care in emergency room settings when they should be in an ICU. This not only limits the ability of healthcare workers to effectively care for these patients, but it also causes delays in the time-sensitive care that non-COVID patients need in an ER setting.

Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs and COVID-19 clinical response leader at University of Mississippi Medical Center, said on Wednesday that UMMC has not had to turn away any patients yet, but that breaking point is approaching. 

“We are not infinite resources,” Jones said. “We can break. We can have to close… And I think we’re rapidly headed that direction.”

READ MORE: COVID-related emergency room visits higher than any point as virus rips through Mississippi

Health care leaders reiterate one key point: It wouldn’t matter if Mississippi had an infinite number of hospital beds if the corresponding number of healthcare workers to weren’t able to staff them. On Wednesday, there were 14 unusable beds at UMMC because of this understaffing. Whether nurses, respiratory therapists or certified medical assistants, Mississippi hospitals small and large are reporting they do not have the staffing to meet the current level of need.

Many nurses and other healthcare workers are leaving the state for higher paying jobs elsewhere, or leaving the medical field altogether due to the traumas of the past year. 

“It is almost impossible to put into words the frustration that they feel, that we all feel, and the disappointment that here we are again… There are a lot of people in healthcare right now that feel pretty mad about this situation,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for UMMC. 

Healthcare workers themselves getting infected with COVID-19, mostly outside the hospitals where they work, is only compounding the staffing problem. 

“There’s no cavalry coming that’s going to bring in a whole army of new nurses to fill in… it’s just not there,” Dobbs said. “We’ll do everything we can to balance it out. But we’re just looking at some real significant pain points in the coming weeks. It’s just inevitable.”

In response to the high levels of COVID-19 infections among its staff, Jackson’s St. Dominic Memorial Hospital announced on Thursday that all employees will have to be vaccinated, or have a documented medical or religious exemption, by Oct. 31 or they will be fired.

This move by St. Dominic comes after UMMC announced on July 16 that all its employees and students will be required to be fully vaccinated after the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines receive full authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Woodward said she was glad to see St. Dominic’s require vaccination for its employees, and that she hopes others will follow suit because the strain on the entire hospital system is “absolutely worse than it was” during the winter peak. 

As scientists continue to collect data on the newest variant that is spreading rapidly, medical experts continue to reiterate that vaccination remains the best protection against contracting the delta variant. The nation’s leading medical researchers agree that vaccines are nearly as effective against the delta variant as the original strain, greatly minimizing the chance of infection and nearly eliminating the risks of developing a serious illness.

Studies suggest, however, that being fully vaccinated is the only adequate protection against the delta variant, as a single shot of either of the two-dose mRNA vaccines provides only weak protection against infection. Of the 2,510 Mississippians who died of COVID-19 between Jan. 1 and Aug. 4 of this year, only 51 were fully vaccinated.

Though Mississippi is no longer last in the nation for the share of its population that has been vaccinated, it still trails 48 other states. Only 35% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The threat posed by the delta variant is motivating a significant uptick in vaccinations, a welcome change that Woodward says will make a difference in the state’s caseload. It will take at least a month for the hospital system to reap any of those benefits, however, and the challenges seen this month are only going to get worse. 

“The path out of this is vaccination,” Woodward said. “What viruses do, they mutate, and they can do it quickly. So the best thing that we can do to be sure that we don’t see another variant that comes through is to get people vaccinated. That is just the best defense.”

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.