An Elmendorf's ambulances sits outside of the emergency entrance. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Gross

To help hospitals wade through the current staffing crisis amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections that is stripping the state’s healthcare system down for parts, the Mississippi Department of Health issued an order on Wednesday that permits certified paramedics, as well as regular and advanced emergency medical technicians to care for patients in any part of a Mississippi hospital. 

“This has been a pandemic of resource squeezes,” State Health Officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said. “We are fighting amongst ourselves for resources. Outside the state, companies are paying a lot to lure staff away. So it is a challenge, but a lot of people are staying here.”

The lack of staffed hospital beds in Mississippi has left patients waiting days for a hospital bed. As of Thursday morning, there were only six open intensive care unit (ICU) beds open across the state, with 46 patients waiting for an ICU bed. Additionally, 251 Mississippians were waiting for an emergency room (ER) bed. 

“We are clearly at the worst part of the pandemic that we’ve seen throughout, and it’s continuing to worsen,” Dobbs said. 

Mississippi has around 2,000 fewer nurses working than it did a year ago, and every hospital in the state is feeling that strain. The University of Mississippi Medical Center has constructed two field hospitals in parking garages to help with patient overflow and provide monoclonal antibody treatments to keep infected people from being hospitalized. 

This fourth wave of COVID-19 infections continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Between July 20 and Aug. 16, 98% of cases (56,748), 89% of hospitalizations (302) and 86% of deaths (303) were among unvaccinated people. 

The threat of the delta variant has motivated more Mississippians to take a COVID-19 vaccine. Last week, more than 71,000 Mississippians took the shot, the highest number seen since the end of April. Dobbs said that the increased vaccination rate will pay dividends down the road and help depress the level of transmission that’s occurring rapidly across the state. 

“This is going to pay huge dividends in a few weeks, but it’s not going to make a difference this week, or even next week,” Dobbs said. “This is something that’s going to help us in the fall, in September. But still, this is a critical first step to making sure that we’re protecting these folks.”

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.