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With Slower Infection Rates, Mississippi Is Closing Last 'Parking Lot' COVID Hospital


Hard-hit coronavirus states like Mississippi are beginning to see soaring COVID numbers start to ease a bit. But as Shalina Chatlani with the Gulf States Newsroom reports, hospitals and medical staff are still buckling under the stress of the fourth wave of the pandemic.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: A few weeks back, a parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson became a field hospital. Instead of cars, it's filled with large, air-conditioned white tents, ventilators, medical equipment and severely ill COVID patients. Dr. Barbara Zimmerman is suiting up with layers of personal protective equipment.

BARBARA ZIMMERMAN: Then we put on the first pair of gloves.

CHATLANI: Zimmerman is preparing to leave this tent called the cold zone, which is virus-free, and enter the hot zone, where they treat critical COVID patients. When they finish up, staff typically come out drenched in sweat. This team was brought in by the international disaster relief organization Samaritan's Purse. Nurse Kelly Sites is the team leader.

KELLY SITES: We're used to three 12-hour shifts at our jobs. But here, when we're deployed, we do a month of 12-hour shifts straight with no break.

CHATLANI: They're here to help take the ICU patient load off the medical center. Earlier this week, health officials said the entire state only had 10 ICU beds available.

THOMAS DOBBS: COVID killed over a thousand Mississippians in the month of August.

CHATLANI: Dr. Thomas Dobbs is the state's health officer.

DOBBS: Almost all of those people did not have to die.

CHATLANI: Just today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that people not fully vaccinated are at least 10 times more likely to die. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Dobbs says unvaccinated patients infected from the delta variant are younger and sicker. In the past month, at least eight pregnant women have died in Mississippi.

DOBBS: I think we're starting to realize that it's actually a bit of a different animal. Delta is different, and delta is deadly.

CHATLANI: In Louisiana, Hurricane Ida temporarily shut down several hospitals. In Alabama, staff, like nurses, are so stressed they've held protests.


CHATLANI: In Mississippi, that exhaustion isn't just in the field hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I got some calcium.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The man's got plenty. He's got plenty.

CHATLANI: It's upstairs at the ICU in the University of Mississippi Medical Center, too.

ANDREW WILHELM: To be honest, emotionally, I'm going through an adrenaline phase and then sort of a depression phase and then an anger phase.

CHATLANI: Critical care pulmonologist Dr. Andrew Wilhelm talks over Zoom from the ICU. A window separates him from patients on ventilators. Monitors beep in the background.

WILHELM: Now I'm in, like, a disappointment phase with a little bit of adrenaline to try to keep everybody taken care of.

CHATLANI: Wilhelm says the team here has been caring for about 45 patients every day. More than half have COVID.

WILHELM: I'll be more optimistic when we talk about an increase in vaccinations that's more than just a slight bump.

CHATLANI: Over the past month, the field hospital in the parking garage cared for 65 critical COVID-19 patients. The team is wrapping up its month-long deployment, and the site will shut down this weekend. But like other states, Mississippi is still relying on outside help to keep its overwhelmed hospital system afloat.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "FAKE EMPIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalina Chatlani

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