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Mississippi's Hospital System Could Collapse Within 10 Days Under COVID's Strain

An ambulance arrives at the emergency department at AdventHealth hospital in Orlando in late July. Florida is one of several states seeing disappearing hospital capacity as COVID-19 cases surge.
An ambulance arrives at the emergency department at AdventHealth hospital in Orlando in late July. Florida is one of several states seeing disappearing hospital capacity as COVID-19 cases surge.

Coronavirus news is coming fast and furious as the delta variant fuels another surge in cases across the United States.

Arkansas set a record for hospitalizations, while officials in one Florida county are urging residents to "consider other options" before calling 911. Health officials in Mississippi said the state's hospital system could collapse in five to 10 days if the current trajectory continues.

Current vaccines protect against severe disease, hospitalization and death — and institutions across the country are strengthening their vaccine requirements and guidance.

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now strongly urging all pregnant people get vaccinated. The Food and Drug Administration could decide this week whether to extend its emergency use authorization to booster shots for immunocompromised people, a move that Dr. Anthony Fauci described to NPR's Morning Edition as "imminent."

More places are now requiring vaccinations, or penalizing people who don't get the shot. The Defense Department is moving to require vaccines for service members, and the Department of Health and Human Services is ordering them for its thousands of health care workers. Plus, some small colleges say they will charge unvaccinated students an extra fee.

With different rules and regulations in place in every state, the fight to control COVID-19 looks a little different depending on where you live.

You can find a state-by-state breakdown on the latest case numbers and vaccination rates here.

California requires proof of vaccination for all school staff

California just became the first state to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools get vaccinated or undergo weekly coronavirus testing.

As KQED's Julia McEvoy reported on Morning Edition, the move affects some 300,000 teachers and tens of thousands of school staff such as bus drivers and custodians.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the move is intended to reassure parents and motivate people to get vaccinated. Schools have until Oct. 15 to show that all employees are immunized or begin regular testing.

Residents in one Florida county are being asked to "consider other options" before calling 911

Officials in Brevard County, on Florida's east coast, are urging residents to "consider other options before taxing ambulance services with non-emergency calls and showing up at the ER for a COVID test when other test sites are available," according to its emergency management office.

All three of the county's hospital systems are already over capacity and have had to implement surge plans that involve canceling elective procedures and converting regular rooms into COVID-19 spaces, said Brevard County Emergency Director John Scott.

He noted that hospital emergency rooms are seeing "comparable surges" in patients with COVID-19 symptoms who are not necessarily experiencing emergencies, which puts other patients — such as those seeking care after accidents or heart attacks — in danger.

The county's fire department is also overwhelmed with calls from coronavirus-positive and symptomatic patients, which means slower turnaround time for ambulances, too.

Fire Rescue Chief Mark Schollmeyer said his department is seeing an increase in patients that "equals, if not exceeds, the height of the pandemic in 2020." He is asking residents to save the emergency room visits and ambulance trips for those who urgently need those services.

Statewide, 90% of Florida's intensive care beds are full. A Tampa-based epidemiologist spoke to Morning Edition about the gravity of the situation.

Nurses check on a patient in the ICU Covid-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Arkansas, U.S., on Aug. 4, 2021. The delta variant is driving up case counts and overwhelming hospitals across the South.
Houston Cofield / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nurses check on a patient in the intensive care unit COVID-19 ward last week at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark. The delta variant is driving up case counts and overwhelming hospitals across the South.

Mississippi's hospital system is on the verge of failure

Hospital leaders at the University of Mississippi Medical Center said the state's medical system is on the verge of failure due to an influx in COVID-19 patients, staff shortages and dwindling ICU capacity.

Dr. Alan Jones, the center's associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, said at a press conference Wednesday that hospitals across the state are full and offered this stark warning:

"Since the pandemic began, I think the thing that hospitals have feared the most is just total failure, total failure of the hospital system. And if we track back a week or so when we look at the case positivity rate, the number of new positives that we're seeing, the rate of testing positives and the rate of hospitalizations based on what we are seeing — if we continue that trajectory within the next five to seven to 10 days, I think we're going to see failure of the hospital system in Mississippi."

The University of Mississippi Medical Center system is preparing to construct a field hospital on the bottom floor of a parking garage, as the Mississippi Free Press reported, and has requested federal support to boost its staffing.

Read more from Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Arkansas sets a new state record for hospitalizations

The state reported 1,376 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday, surpassing a record it set in January. Health officials said there were just eight ICU beds available in the state.

Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told NPR's Debbie Elliott that the average COVID-19 patient was over 60 a year ago but is now 40. Some 20% of the medical center's patients have been pregnant moms, he added.

He said the situation is exacerbated by nursing shortages and widespread skepticism of the vaccine and health care system generally, which he attributes to multiple causes. He said it's essential to work with community partners to try to boost vaccination rates.

"Frankly, though, at the end of the day, we know that mandates work," Patterson said. "And if we can't have a statewide mandate, then maybe individual industries can do it. And we can do it piece by piece. But you know, getting vaccinated is going to be our off-ramp for COVID-19 here in Arkansas."


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 13, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Arkansas had reported 1,376 new COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday. In fact, the state reported 1,376 total COVID-19 hospitalizations on that day.
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