JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Within two weeks, Mississippi hospitals will need to start housing patients two-to-a room and placing beds in open wards and other areas where patients don't normally stay to keep up with the surge in new coronavirus cases, the state health officer said Monday.
“If we don't see a decrease in transmission immediately, then it's pretty likely that the health care system is going to be thoroughly overwhelmed,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs said at a news briefing.
On Monday, 943 people were hospitalized in Mississippi with confirmed cases of coronavirus and 293 people were battling the virus in intensive care. And 40% of all patients in Mississippi's ICU's have coronavirus compared with 31% of patients just last Friday, a “phenomenal number,” Dobbs said.
“The fact that we are growing so quickly really tells us that we are at the verge of really pushing our system over its capacity," he said. “In large measure, we are already there."
The rising cases have forced leaders to take action. Starting Monday, people are required to wear masks in public in 23 of the 82 counties under a new executive order by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. Those 23 counties cover 55% to 60% of the state population, Reeves said on a call with the White House coronavirus task force Monday.
On the call, Reeves said Mississippi is seeing a rapid increase in patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
”I recognize that compared to some other states, these are relatively small numbers, but obviously a movement in the wrong direction,” Reeves said.
Health officials paint a bleak picture. Emergency rooms have become makeshift intensive care units because hospitals have no other place to put patients, Dobbs said. He said he got a call about sending a patient to Missouri on Sunday because no beds were available in Mississippi or surrounding states.
Dobbs said it's discouraging to see social media posts with people not wearing masks or socially distancing. A video of a street basketball game in Jackson attended by hundreds of people drew attention over the weekend. A handful of people were wearing masks. A country music concert on the Gulf Coast also attracted a large crowd, with many people bare-faced.
Reeves' new executive order is an expansion of his past order requiring masks in 13 counties. Although he has vehemently spoken in support of all Mississippians wearing masks, Reeves has not set a statewide mask requirement and has said he will only mandate mask-wearing in counties with the highest increases in new coronavirus cases.
Monday on Twitter, Reeves said people have sought a “silver bullet” solution to the pandemic, whether it be ventilators, shelter-in-place orders or statewide mask mandates.
“Here’s the hard truth: there’s no single answer,” he wrote. “All of those measures can be useful. None can be our savior. There’s no magic solution coming to save us all from personal responsibility. There is no piece of paper that a politician can sign to make this go away.”
The governor's new order restricts public gatherings in those additional 10 counties. The governor announced that in those counties, he will limit gatherings to 10 people indoors and 20 outdoors. Until earlier this month, the statewide limit was 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors in all counties.
The new restrictions apply to Bolivar, Covington, Forrest, Humphreys, Panola, Sharkey, Simpson, Tallahatchie, Tate and Walthall counties.
The existing restrictions are in some of the most heavily populated counties in the state: Hinds, Madison and Rankin in the Jackson area; DeSoto County in the north; and Harrison and Jackson counties on the coast. The restrictions are also in smaller counties with high rates of the virus: Claiborne, Grenada, Jefferson, Quitman, Sunflower, Washington and Wayne.
The executive orders will expire at 8 a.m. Aug. 3.
Mississippi has a population of about 3 million. The Health Department said Monday that the state has had at least 43,889 confirmed cases and at least 1,358 deaths from the coronavirus as of Sunday evening. That was an increase of 1,251 cases and three deaths from numbers reported the day before.
At least 3,162 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 651 virus-related deaths in those facilities, the department said.
The true number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older patients and those with other health problems.