Natchez doctor warns COVID battle ‘much worse’ than last year; state warns get vaccine or get virus

Published 5:51 pm Wednesday, August 11, 2021

By Stacy Graning

“Either you get vaccinated or you get COVID.”

That’s the message state health officials shared on Wednesday, and it’s one echoed by local medical professionals, who are seeing resources strained as COVID-19 cases spike again.

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“Right now, it’s vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, and the people in the hospital are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Chris Martin, a Natchez surgeon. “It’s much worse than it was last year because all of this is happening at once.”

On Wednesday, Adams County saw 26 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 3,645 with 90 deaths since the pandemic began. The state health department reported 3,163 new cases, bringing the total to 371,712 cases of COVID-19 and 7,710 coronavirus-related deaths in the state since the pandemic started.

In addressing the rapid spread of the Delta variant during a media briefing, the state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that Mississippians will “either get vaccinated or get COVID” due to the rapid spread of the virus. According to officials, only 35 percent of the state’s nearly 3 million residents are fully vaccinated while the national average is about 50 percent.

Officials at Merit Health Natchez said the state health department can provide the best global picture of what’s happening in the local community, but local statistics support Martin’s comments.

“We are currently caring for 26 COVID-19 patients,” Kay Ketchings, director of marketing said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Out of those, 2 percent have been vaccinated and seven are currently on ventilators.”

Ketchings said the patient numbers are bed availability counts are “fluid throughout the day, as patients are discharged and admitted.” But, she added, “while all of our critical care beds are fully utilized at present, our hospital does have the capacity to hospitalize additional patients.”

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.

In Natchez, Ketchings said Merit Health remains “prepared to care for all patients who need medical attention and encourages anyone experiencing a medical emergency to seek care promptly.”

The Mississippi Department of Health has ordered all hospitals to delay elective surgical procedures that require an overnight hospitalization until at least Aug. 15. “As another precaution, our hospital has reinstituted mandatory testing for all outpatient surgical and endoscopic procedures, as well as for all hospital admissions, and made adjustments to our visitation policy,” she said.

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 social media. “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!”

Locally, both Ketchings and Martin reiterated the importance of vaccinations.

“We are proud to have vaccinated more than 1,200 (people),” Ketchings said of the hospitals effort to vaccinate employees, other healthcare professionals and those in the community.

She added Merit Health has also partnered with the City of Natchez on its campaign to bring awareness of the importance of receiving the vaccine.

“We encourage everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccination as soon as you can,” Ketchings said. “Vaccines remain the best strategy for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

Martin said while masks can offer some protection, the “most important thing everyone needs to do is go get vaccinated.”

As for the strain on local health professionals working to care for the influx of patients, Ketchings said the community “has shown us tremendous support throughout this pandemic, and our employees are grateful for your prayers, your words of encouragement and any acts of kindness individuals or businesses would like to offer.”

“Since my arrival to Merit Health Natchez two weeks ago, I have witnessed countless acts of teamwork being demonstrated, from directors volunteering to be extra sets of hands and feet on the weekends and after hours to employees offering to help wherever they are needed,” said Garrett May, CEO of Merit Health Natchez. “I am also encouraged and grateful for the support of our hospital and employees throughout the community.  We are a team and in this together, and I am so proud to be serving alongside the employees at Merit Health Natchez.”