Standing in a parking garage at the state’s largest hospital, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs’ blue eyes, and the bags beneath, are the only visible parts of his face. The rest is hidden behind a mask.
“All right,” he told the group of hospital administrators around him. “So, we’ve come to this.”
Normally, cars and trucks are parked here. Parking Garage B. Thursday afternoon, there is a long, narrow, white tent with rows of hospital beds atop vinyl-type floors.
Outside the tent, it’s a typical Mississippi summer afternoon. Hot and humid. Droning portable air conditioning units provide relief inside. The tent does not look like it’s in a parking garage, but the Ford F-150 visible through the rolled up section of tarp in the back gives it away.
“We should not be here, y’all,” Dobbs said.
In about nine hours, this tent will be full of COVID-19 patients — 20 to be exact, according to hospital officials. Another tent being constructed next to this one will hold an additional 30.
“When you’re standing in a field hospital at a major academic medical center, we’re pretty much at a collapse,” said Alan Jones, COVID-19 clinical response leader for the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “This is not enough beds to support the state of Mississippi.”
Thousands upon thousands of COVID-19 cases have overwhelmed the state’s short-staffed hospitals. There are no intensive care unit beds left in the state, according to state health officials. No normal hospital beds, either.
There’s even a waiting list for patients to get into the medical tent, Jones said.
The people who will be treated in Parking Garage B are not the sickest patients, Jones said. They won’t be intubated. If if they need critical care, they will have to be transferred into the ICU, if there is any room.
Members of a federal disaster medical assistance team will staff the tent. They’ll be here 14 days — maybe longer if the state still needs assistance, said Rick Hess, the disaster medical assistance team leader.
Mississippi set a record for new cases Thursday with more than 4,400. It was the second time this week the state set that record. Thursday’s new cases alone will account for more than 300 hospitalizations and close to 100 deaths, Dobbs said.
Almost 8,000 Mississippians have died from COVID-19. More will die as the virus rages.
Dobbs is asked if, eight months ago, when the vaccine was made available, he thought he would be standing in Parking Garage B of the state’s largest hospital on an August afternoon.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said.
Recently, Dobbs said on Twitter he has been listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers every morning. It’s what he does when he is irrepressibly frustrated, he tweeted.
He has begged and pleaded with Mississippians to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Stop looking at Facebook and other unreliable sources, he said. The people who spread misinformation there, he said, aren’t accountable for when people get sick and die.
Health officials don’t see an end to the rise in hospitalizations or new cases anytime soon. Not without a serious increase in vaccinations. Dobbs estimated at least one million more Mississippians needed immunity to effectively curtail the coronavirus’ spread.
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” he said.
Lee O. Sanderlin is an investigative and political reporter covering the state of Mississippi. Got a story tip? You can call him at 601-559-3857, send it to LSanderlin@gannett.com or message him on Twitter @LeeOSanderlin.