Nearly 3 weeks into coronavirus outbreak, total number of ventilators in Miss. hospitals still unknown

Department of Health says state has no shortage despite not being able to produce total number
Updated: Mar. 31, 2020 at 8:58 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While Mississippians can look online and see how many cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, how many people have died and how many people have been tested by the state’s public health lab, they can’t find the number of ventilators because the Mississippi State Department of Health hasn’t released that information.

At a Tuesday morning press conference with the governor, state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers told reporters he didn’t have a definite number to be able to share, but said MSDH is receiving that information from hospitals.

3 On Your Side reached out to Liz Sharlot, director of communications for the agency, to be able to get that exact number, but Sharlot said she didn’t have numbers to share.

“I can tell you that we have no shortage of ventilators at this time,” Sharlot said in an email.

Without those numbers, it’s difficult to be able to assess critical care capacity at the Magnolia State’s hospitals as more coronavirus patients are hospitalized.

“You don’t want to be, as a healthcare provider, put in a situation where you’re making decisions about who gets the last ventilator, or who gets put on a ventilator or who doesn’t," said Dr. Alan Jones, chair of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

"Purely from a healthcare perspective, we would not want to be put in that situation, and we’ve heard those stories from Italy and various other places, so we’re trying to position ourselves where at least we’ll have plans on how to deal with that,” he continued.

Dr. Jones said he believes Mississippi is about two weeks from the spike in COVID-19 cases which some other states are seeing, which he calls a positive, because it buys doctors and nurses more time.

While the state’s total numbers increased only 11 percent from Monday to Tuesday, Mississippi’s case rate per capita stands as fourth-highest among southeastern U.S. states; its death rate third highest in that same 3 On Your Side analysis.

“What we know about the progression of the disease is if a patient does progress and get worse, then typically, they would progress to needing some oxygen, and that would progressively get worse as the pneumonia in the lungs progresses," Dr. Jones said.

That means that patient may need a ventilator to mechanically send much-needed oxygen into their lungs.

Dr. Jones said UMMC has anywhere from 125 to 150 conventional ventilators right now.

However, many of those are already being utilized.

“We probably have on any given day, about 40 percent of our ventilator supply, maybe 50 percent, that are in use," Dr. Jones said.

Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation spokesperson Ayoka Pond said Mississippi’s ten Baptist hospitals have a total of 165 ventilators.

Neither Merit Health nor St. Dominic responded to requests for ventilator information.

The Magnolia State’s population and high rates of diabetes and stroke also mean those underlying conditions could lead to more COVID-19 patients being hospitalized, he said.

Already, three hundred people -- comprising 32 percent of total coronavirus cases -- have been hospitalized, according to MSDH.

“Because we have a high degree of chronic illness burden, we may be more susceptible to having a higher case burden of acutely ill and even chronically ill patients. That remains to be seen, but it’s something certainly that we have a degree of concern about," Dr. Jones said.

The UMMC doctor said he believes the worst is yet to come, and has been watching various studies and estimates that attempt to predict when Mississippi might reach its peak of total confirmed cases.

“It’s a question we ask ourselves every day. It really depends on what assumptions you use in various models, but everything that we are seeing, I believe we could expect somewhere between the third week in April and the first week in May to be the time in which we’re probably going to see our peak case and death events in Mississippi," he said.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Malary White said the agency has reached out to the federal government to request ventilators and other medical equipment from the national stockpile, but said only 1 percent of the stockpile has been allocated to Mississippi because other states have greater needs right now.

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