Mississippi will open a 50-bed field hospital and the federal government will send medical professionals to help treat patients as COVID-19 cases continue surging in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S., officials said Wednesday.
Many Mississippi hospitals face a crunch for space and staffing.
The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, expressed frustration Wednesday about people ignoring recommendations to get vaccinated and wear masks to slow the spread of the virus. Masks are required in some schools and optional in others, but some parents say mask mandates infringe on children’s freedom.
“I kind of personally feel like I'm an air traffic controller, and every day I'm watching two airliners collide,” Dobbs said during a news conference.
The state's temporary field hospital — on reserve for disasters — will be in a parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and it could be open by Friday.
Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the head of UMMC, said the facility should help with an influx of patients, including some transferred from smaller hospitals. She described the field hospital as “a Band-Aid.”
“The big solution is, let's get this surge under control, and let's get the spread of this virus under control," Woodward said during a separate news conference. "And the way that we do that is by getting people vaccinated.”
COVID-19 cases in Mississippi have risen sharply in recent weeks because of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
The state Health Department said 35% of Mississippi residents are fully vaccinated, compared to about 50% nationally. It also said that between July 13 and Tuesday in Mississippi, unvaccinated people made up 97% of those newly diagnosed with COVID-19, 90% of those hospitalized with it and 84% of those who died from it.
Mississippi has been approaching its record number of hospitalizations from the virus. Its highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations for a single day was 1,444 on Jan. 4, before vaccines against the virus were widely available. The Health Department reported Wednesday that 1,378 patients with COVID-19 were in Mississippi hospitals Tuesday, down from 1,410 the day before.
Jim Craig, senior deputy at the state Health Department, said that 10 intensive care beds were available Wednesday in the state. He said the state has asked the federal government if Navy ships might be available to provide medical help.
Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has requested help from other states to deal with the surge of virus cases. He also said the agency is starting to set contracts with private entities to get additional medical workers.
“My number one goal from day one of this pandemic has always been to protect the integrity of our health care system,” Republican Reeves wrote on Facebook. “The current phase of the pandemic seems more and more like a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated' – as the Delta variant has had very few breakthrough cases amongst those who have ‘gotten the shot’ – but the goal remains the same: ensure everyone that can get better with quality care receives that quality care!”
More than 1,000 teachers and students in Mississippi schools tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the Health Department said Wednesday. But the case numbers could be much larger because schools from only 43 of the state’s 82 counties provided information, and private schools have not been reporting virus cases. About 442,600 students were enrolled in Mississippi public schools last year.
Some schools started classes in late July, but most have been starting this month. Reeves has said he does not intend to set another statewide mask mandate for schools, leaving decisions to local school boards.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba on Wednesday ordered all city employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have a religious objection or a doctor's excuse; they must receive the first dose by Aug. 31.
The state Health Department on Wednesday reported 3,163 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Mississippi. Mississippi has about 3 million residents. The department has reported 371,712 cases of COVID-19 and 7,710 coronavirus-related deaths in the state since the pandemic started.