JACKSON, Miss. – More and more unvaccinated people sickened by COVID-19’s Delta variant are turning to the University of Mississippi Medical Center for life-saving care – but staffing and bed shortages are at a critical level on track to only get worse, UMMC leaders warn.
“We are at this moment over capacity. We have been most of the summer, honestly. We’re holding patients in the Emergency Department, and in the recovery rooms after surgery, because they are waiting for a bed,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine and UMMC’s COVID-19 incident commander.
“This is not a new normal. This is not a good place to be.”
Wednesday morning, UMMC was caring for 72 confirmed COVID-19 patients, 15 of those in the adult ICU and four in the pediatric ICU; 13 patients being investigated for COVID-19; and nine patients no longer contagious, but not well enough to return home. That’s slightly down from the overall count of 106 on Tuesday, a figure rivaling the Medical Center’s highest one-day count since the pandemic began.
On average for the last couple of weeks, about 30 patients daily have waited in the adult and pediatric emergency departments for a bed to become open. “We’ve had moments where we’ve had in the 60s and 50s admitted to a service, but didn’t have a bed because we were full,” Woodward said during a question-and-answer session for local media livestreamed on UMMC’s Facebook page.
And if a patient is waiting in the Emergency Department for a hospital bed, “that’s one less (ED) bed we have to accept a patient who needs our services,” said Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs and COVID-19 clinical response leader.
“We are short-staffed. We are short-staffed with nurses, we are short-staffed with respiratory therapists … Not only are we short-staffed, we are even shorter than usual short-staffed because we’ve had some outbreaks here at the Medical Center in our own staff,” Woodward said.
Staffing shortages mean the Medical Center must leave vacant about 14 precious intensive care beds and another 15 beds reserved for patients post-surgery or who have other medical needs. “We are not able to use them because we can’t staff them,” Jones said.
UMMC’s approximate 92 ICU beds stay full year-round, in addition to regular patient beds, because the Medical Center cares for the most seriously ill and injured patients from across the state. Many patients, including current COVID-19 patients, have been transferred from hospitals that don’t have the capacity or expertise to treat them.
The Delta variant’s extremely contagious nature means more people are getting sick, and more people have serious illness requiring a hospital or ICU stay.
“Six. That’s how many ICU beds we had open this morning in the entire state. Six,” said Dr. Jonathan Wilson, chief administrative officer and COVID-19 incident manager.
It’s important to remember that the influx of patients with injuries and other maladies doesn’t stop during a pandemic, Wilson said. Those suffering strokes, heart attacks and traumatic injuries continue to require emergency rooms and ICU care, he said, and “we have to find open beds for them.”
Like hospital systems nationwide, UMMC is struggling to recruit nurses and is several hundred short of the number needed, Jones said. “There’s a level of fatigue” among the front-line staff, Woodward said. “It’s almost impossible to put into words the frustration they are feeling … and at some low level, anger.
“We know more now. We’ve got the vaccine, and yet, here we are again. We haven’t seen our peak of hospitalizations. How much more can we take? We’re very concerned with what we are seeing,” she said.
COVID-19 looks different than during the peaks of summer 2020 and January 2021, UMMC leaders say.
“Most people unvaccinated in Mississippi are under 50. That’s who we are seeing” at UMMC, Jones said. “We’re seeing young people and kids. Older adults have the higher vaccination coverage.”
The huge majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and the same goes for those who have died, Woodward said. “Ninety-plus percent are in the unvaccinated,” she said.
The Delta variant is significantly more contagious than the Alpha variant, he said. “When we’ve had outbreaks among our staff, before (the Delta variant) you might have infected a coworker in the break room. Now, it’s six or seven coworkers.”
UMMC in late July became the first hospital in the state to enact a policy requiring anyone who works or learns in a UMMC-controlled space to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with limited exceptions, or wear an N95 mask at all times while at any UMMC facility. The policy is in keeping with UMMC’s commitment to a safe patient, working and learning environment. It also exemplifies the Medical Center’s role as a leading health care institution and only academic medical center in the state.
The Medical Center is treating about three times the number of pediatric patients than it did early in the pandemic, Wilson said. “Twelve pediatric patients is a significant number of patients with just one disease,” he said.
“The vaccine is the best tool we have, and the second best tool is masking,” Jones said. ”I’m a scientist. I’ve read the data. We know the Delta variant is more infectious, and we know scientifically that masks work. Science tells us that a mask on top of a vaccine will help calm things down and help get us back to where we were before.”
UMMC leaders urge all who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine to get it now.
“What if it gets worse? It’s in our DNA to take patients when we are asked to – to say yes as often as we can,” Woodward said. “What if we get to the point where we can’t say yes?”