A line forms at the MEA Medical Clinic, as people seek to get a COVID test at the Clinton facility, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Nearing the end of a week in which Mississippi recorded a record number of COVID-19 infections, a majority being the heavily infectious omicron variant, state health officials are warning of the weeks to come and emphasizing the need for residents to stay up to date on their vaccinations.

“We know we’ve got some weeks ahead of us of severe stress, and the health system especially, is going to be going through a lot of pains,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during a Friday press conference. 

Currently, around 73% of positive tests being sequenced in the state are showing omicron infections. State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said that while an omicron infection does produce milder illness than the delta variant, the sheer number of cases the state is currently seeing will translate to increased hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks. This problem is almost certain to be exacerbated by the low number of monoclonal antibody and antiviral pill treatments the state is receiving.

As of Friday, only 11 ICU beds were available across the state’s level one and two hospitals. Over the past week alone, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has increased 64% and the number of those patients on ventilators has increased by 50%.

Some Mississippi patients have had to be transferred out of state since the omicron wave began due to the lack of open, staffable beds. If this wave of infections overwhelms the hospital system like delta, health officials said it’s unlikely the system will be propped up by the travel nurses and field hospitals utilized during that wave. 

“I don’t know that we’re going to be able to draw in the type of staffing levels that we saw in delta from anywhere in the country right now, including some of these federal resources,” Jim Craig, Senior Deputy and Director of MSDH’s Office of Health Protection, said. 

Dobbs also urged Mississippians to avoid going to already overwhelmed emergency rooms for COVID-19 testing. Many have gone to an ER for testing in recent weeks, as they were unable to purchase an at-home test or schedule one at a clinic or testing site over the holidays. 

“We’ll do what we can from a health department perspective, but please understand that emergency rooms are for emergencies,” Dobbs said. 

The state is getting 50,000 additional rapid antigen tests next week, and is expanding the number of testing slots and locations when possible. 

Most of the cases Mississippi is seeing during the omicron wave are among younger individuals, with the most rapid growth in the 25-39 age group. The most severe illness is occurring in those aged 65 and older. The majority of hospitalizations and 65% of the deaths seen in January have occurred in this age group.

While pediatric hospitalizations are low, they’re still present in Mississippi. As of Friday, 19 children diagnosed with COVID-19 are hospitalized at Children’s of Mississippi, the state’s only hospital specifically for kids and teens. Four of those patients are in intensive care and two are on ventilators. 

The vaccination rate among children and teenagers in Mississippi is much lower than any other age groups and the same groups in neighboring states. Only 36% of kids in the 12-17 age group are fully vaccinated, and only 5% of 5-11 year-olds are. 

“We do need to get more children fully vaccinated. That’s what’s gonna keep children out of the hospital and out of the ICU,” Byers said. 

Health officials are also urging Mississippians to stay up to date on their vaccinations, which now includes getting a booster shot if you’re eligible. Byers said that only 2% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred in individuals who were fully vaccinated and received a booster. The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated. 

Anyone ages 12 and up can get a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine five months after their primary regimen. Anyone ages 18 and up can get a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine five months after their primary regimen, or a Johnson & Johnson booster two months after. You can schedule a vaccination appointment at your local health department office here.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.