Larger regional hospitals in Mississippi – where the sickest patients often get their care – are full, and state health officials are begging Mississippians to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu to protect themselves and the health care system.

“It’s the inability to transfer (patients) to a higher level of care – our Level 1 and Level 2 hospitals are really being swamped,” State Health Officer Dr. Dan Edney said Thursday. “… We’ve been having a lot of transfers go out of state.” 

Hospitals in neighboring states are also in similar situations and not able to accept transfers.

As of noon on Thursday, some hospitals in Tennessee were not accepting transfers, said Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi State Department of Health.

Available intensive care unit (ICU) beds around Mississippi are dwindling, with 65 beds available statewide – a trend similar to the past two winters, said Edney. 

As of Thursday, only 27 ICU beds were available at larger hospitals. 

“That’s 27 beds for everything – trauma, strokes, heart attacks. Not just flu and COVID,” he said. “We want to protect those beds as best we can.” 

The University of Mississippi Medical Center – the state’s only Level 1 trauma center –  was at capacity, meaning beds are full, said a spokesperson for UMMC at 1 p.m. Thursday.  

North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, a Level 2 trauma center, has denied an average of one patient transfer each day over the past three months because of severe staffing issues. It has also had issues transferring patients out to other hospitals.

“When we do have to transfer, primarily for services we do not provide such as burns, we have experienced more difficulty due to the receiving hospitals’ capacity issues,” said Kim Marlatt, vice president of marketing at North Mississippi Health System.

The state’s only burn center, formerly housed at Merit Health Central in Jackson, closed in October.

St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson is also experiencing issues with capacity.

“St. Dominic’s is working diligently to explore every possible solution to meet the care and safety needs of patients in the communities we serve,” said Meredith Bailess, the hospital’s marketing director. 

Edney, along with State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers, urged Mississippians to get their bivalent COVID-19 booster, which includes a component of the original virus strain and a component of the omicron variant to provide better protection against the current dominant strain of the virus. 

“This (bivalent booster) is a very important booster vaccine to provide protection not only against infection but also protection from those hospitalizations and protect us from deaths,” said Byers. “It’s extremely important for us now, especially the most vulnerable people in our population, to make sure everyone who is eligible is up to date with the bivalent booster vaccine.” 

Mississippi’s bivalent booster uptake has been low, as has the nation’s.

Mississippi is seeing “very high” flu activity, and Edney and Byers also encouraged people to get their flu shots. 

Mississippians can make an appointment for COVID-19 and flu vaccines at the health department website. Vaccine appointments are also available at the federal website vaccines.gov

People can get the updated COVID-19 booster even if they have not gotten an earlier booster shot. That means that if you got two doses of Pfizer, Moderna or Noravax, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson, you qualify for the new booster as long as two months have passed since your last dose. You are also eligible if you got a booster dose more than two months ago.

“Do what you can to protect yourself and your family so you don’t wind up in the health care system when it’s under stress,” said Edney. 

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.