People gasping for breath in hospital hallways. A 34-week pregnant woman losing her baby because she got the virus. Dozens of patients waiting in an emergency room for an intensive care unit bed to open up. A nurse working eight shifts in a row.
These were among the stories top hospital leaders across the Mississippi Gulf Coast — one of the state’s biggest COVID-19 hotspots — told the region’s business leaders on a Thursday morning conference call. The Gulf Coast hospitals, like facilities across the state, are overwhelmed with patients infected with the delta variant.
“Just a couple nights ago, I walked out of the ER and saw ambulances here that weren’t able to take out patients yet, people on stretchers in the hallways… People were gasping for air,” Lee Bond, the CEO of the Singing River Health System, said on the call. “It’s a matter of time before somewhere in our great state someone goes to the ER and is not able to get treated because we don’t have the arms and legs to do it.”
The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 4,412 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest single-day caseload the state has seen throughout the pandemic. This shattered the previous record of 3,488 cases set just two days ago. Physicians say these high daily case numbers will translate to more record hospitalizations in coming weeks.
The situation in Mississippi hospitals is more dire than it’s ever been. Top medical professionals began sounding the alarm this week that the Mississippi hospital system could fail in 5-10 days if the current trajectory of new COVID-19 cases continues.
As of Wednesday, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, patients in an ICU and patients on ventilators were at pandemic peaks.
The Gulf Coast Business Council hosted State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and the hospital executives for the virtual meeting on Thursday to answer questions and spell out to local businesses the seriousness of the delta wave.
Dobbs said the state reported 36 deaths on Monday due to COVID-19 or complications from the virus. Eleven of those deaths were of people under 50, he said. Three of them were in their 20s. Two were pregnant women. All were unvaccinated.
“Had those people been vaccinated, they would not be dead,” he said. “Not only would they not be dead, but they would have not had to go to hospital.”
PHOTO GALLERY: UMMC field hospital
A little over 1 million Mississippians are fully vaccinated, which is about 35% of the state. About 1.3 million people have had at least one vaccine. Mississippi ranks 48th in the nation for vaccine rates. It will take another 1 million Mississippians to get vaccinated before the state reaches any sort of herd immunity, Dobbs said.
Vaccination rates in the Gulf Coast counties, one of the most populated regions of Mississippi, continues to lag behind the state average. Only a little over 33% of the three Gulf Coast counties have been fully vaccinated so far, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health experts continue to stress that being fully vaccinated is the only adequate protection against the virus.
“The delta wave is uncontrolled right now,” Dobbs said. “It’s really sweeping over us like a hurricane. It’s phenomenally bad.”
Bond said that in his hospital system, a woman who was 34-weeks pregnant and lost her baby while in the hospital with the virus. There is a 27-year-old patient with the virus who just gave birth but has only Facetimed with her baby.
“She made it to the floor, out of the ICU, but yesterday we had to put her back on the vent,” Bond said. “I don’t know if she will ever get to see her baby or not.”
As the top medical professionals warned on Wednesday that the state’s hospital system was days from failure, Gov. Tate Reeves said Mississippians should “remain calm.” During a press event Thursday in the Gulf Coast, he said people should get the shot so they can move on with their lives.
But Reeves’ Thursday plea for vaccinations will not help the state’s hospitals in the short-term. Based on the number of new cases reported Thursday, Dobbs estimated about 300 will need care in hospitals in coming days, and about 93 people will die, he said, based on historical data.
Bond said he had 130 patients with COVID-19 at Singing River as of Thursday. Gulfport Memorial Hospital CEO Kent Nicaud said he had “negative 23” ICU beds available on Thursday — meaning 23 patients were in the ER waiting for space in the ICU to open. The hospital had 95 patients with COVID-19, he said. In Hancock County, it was much the same.
“We had a nurse in Slidell work eight shifts in row,” said Hancock’s hospital system CEO Wilson Thomas. “We are stretched thin and we cannot really stretch anymore.”
The delta wave still hasn’t reached its peak in hospitalizations. Dobbs expects that to happen in the next three to four weeks.
All of it, he said, could have been avoided if more of the state was vaccinated. Dobbs and the hospital executives told the business owners on the call to encourage employees to get the vaccine.
Mississippi Today reporter Will Stribling contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the accurate number of Mississippians who are vaccinated.