Thomas Dobbs

Dr. Thomas Dobbs speaking to a group of reporters during a visit to DeSoto County.

As the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are expected in Mississippi in the coming days, health care systems in DeSoto County and across the region are being stretched to their limits.

The first doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine, which is 95% effective, according to trials, are expected to come to Mississippi next week. The supply expected before the end of the year, though, will not be large enough to stop the crisis of an overwhelmed health care system across the state without other measures, according to State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs.

Dobbs said that it is possible that 1000 more people in the state die before the end of the year, if enough people continue to ignore safety guidelines like wearing masks or avoiding public gatherings.

Local hospital expands ICU bed capacity

DeSoto County, with well over 11,000 infected and 110 dead from the virus since March, is no exception to the health care crisis gripping the state.

Methodist Olive Branch Hospital has nearly doubled its ICU bed capacity, according to data from the state health department.

The hospital in Olive Branch, which has run out of ICU beds multiple times in recent weeks, has expanded its facilities from 12 ICU beds to 20.

Across the entire Methodist-LeBonheur hospital system, there were six available ICU beds this morning, according to a spokesperson.

Though patients are often transferred between hospitals within the systems, hospitals within the system can expand their capacities. This is the way Methodist Olive Branch has expanded its ICU bed capacity.

“In addition to being able to share resources across our healthcare system, our individual hospitals have the ability to flex space within their facilities,” a spokesperson for Methodist-LeBonheur said in an email. “This ability to flex bed capacity is based on staffing and availability. It's important to remember that numbers reflected on the state website are a snapshot in time and change throughout the day.”

This comes at a time when health care systems across the entire region are being stretched, sometimes having to delay critical care for patients.

“You can’t clean it up until you turn off the spigot,” Dobbs at a Tuesday press conference said about the continued surge in cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi from not following safety guidelines like wearing a mask. “We have refused to turn off the spigot… We are just unable to take that simple step.”

Dobbs said that though a vaccine is on the way, now is a critical time for the state, saying wearing masks and avoiding gatherings would still be needed for several months.

“Those are people we can save,” he said. “We collectively have put too much stress on (health care workers). It’s our fault.”

First vaccines to go to front-line workers

Dobbs said that Mississippi is expected to get 25,000 doses of the first COVID-19 vaccine next week, all of which will go to front-line health care workers.

The 25,000 dose batch will cover only a fraction of the need of health care workers in the state; over 150,000 Mississippians work in hospitals and clinics in the state. Dobbs and State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers plan on receiving the first doses before the public to show their belief in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, they said.

Though 25,000 front-line health care workers will have access to the vaccine soon — with the second dose of the two-round immunization reserved for the coming weeks, Mississippians who do not work in health care will have to wait longer until a larger supply becomes available.

Dobbs said that it was likely that vaccines would not be available to every Mississippian until late spring or summer.

He also noted that it is unknown whether people will be able to go about their lives as usual after being inoculated, because the risk of transmission after being vaccinated has not been studied. Dobbs said it stood to reason that without the risk of infection, vaccinated people would have a low risk of transmission.

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