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A federally staffed field hospital to treat COVID-19 patients should be operating Friday from the ground floor of a University of Mississippi Medical Center parking garage.
The state-owned mobile hospital tent can treat up to 50 patients at a time, giving some needed relief to UMMC’s Emergency Department, where dozens of admitted patients are held until a regular or intensive care unit bed opens up. Patients who are waiting on a transfer into a critical care or regular inpatient room can take up a substantial number of the Medical Center’s 50 adult ED exam rooms, each containing a bed.
But the help is only temporary at a time when the Medical Center is daily breaking its own record for patients admitted with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. On Wednesday, that number was 127, including 26 children.
“Our biggest pain point is the nursing staff available,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said during a news conference Wednesday. UMMC has regular and ICU beds that it can’t open because there aren’t enough nurses to staff them.
The Mississippi State Department of Health, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and UMMC, made a request for help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Dr. Jonathan Wilson, UMMC’s chief administrative officer. Federal employees that include doctors, nurses, pharmacists and respiratory therapists will be deployed to work at the field hospital.
“It will be substantial assistance,” Woodward said. The federal government is covering the cost.
It couldn’t come at a better time. Even in non-pandemic days, UMMC’s approximately 90 adult ICU beds stay full, as do regular medical-surgical beds in the Medical Center’s adult hospitals. The same is true for inpatient beds at Children’s of Mississippi, the state’s sole pediatric hospital. Front-line caregivers are exhausted, and as of Tuesday, 70 UMMC hospital employees, including 20 who work at outpatient clinics, were either sick with COVID-19 or quarantined because of exposure to the highly contagious Delta variant.
”The thing that hospitals have feared most is total failure of the hospital system,” said Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs. “If we continue this trajectory for the next five to seven days, we will see failure of the system. We’re in a pretty serious situation when you see federal teams come in. It should open people’s eyes.”
More than 90 percent of COVID-19 patients being treated at UMMC are unvaccinated.
“I’m not saying we have reached the point of failure, but we are definitely headed in that direction,” Jones said.
Treatment at the field hospital will include iV infusion of monoclonal antibodies, which generally are administered in a hospital setting. The antibodies are intended to block the COVID-19 virus from attaching to human cells, making it more difficult for the virus to reproduce and cause harm.
Every day, hospitals around the state transfer patients to UMMC who need a higher level of care, including many severely ill COVID-19 patients, among them pregnant women and children. Many of the smaller hospitals are overwhelmed. “They are in a bad and dark place that we are all dreading, and we hope we won’t get there,” Woodward said.
Some hospitals around the country are on total diversion, meaning they are taking no new patients. “That is our nightmare,” Jones said.
It’s unclear just how long the field hospital will be in operation. “We also have to think about what we will do when that time is up,” Woodward said.
“Are we at the peak? Will it be another month? We don’t know,” Woodward said. “We don’t know the impact of schools opening.”
MSDH on Wednesday reported 3,163 new cases August 10 that had been recorded since 3 p.m. August 9. The agency reported that so far for the month of August, 841 students and 347 teachers and staff in grades K-12 have tested positive. Included in those numbers are 798 new COVID-positive students and 296 new COVID-positive teachers and staff for the week of August 2-6.
A total 4,435 students and 382 teachers and staff were quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure between August 2-6, MSDH says.
“The big thing that will help us is to encourage people to get the vaccine, and when they are indoors or in a crowded situation, to wear a mask,” Woodward said.
“We are trying to stop the rapid rise of new cases … to turn it around. That’s what we need to catch our breath, and to get around the corner.”
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