TUPELO • With a summer surge now rivaling the worst of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s first onset, North Mississippi Health Services continues a management process that emphasizes flexibility, shifting resources as needed in response to a historic health crisis.
To date, the highest number of COVID-19 patients ever hospitalized across the NMHS system was 57. That number has been seen on several occasions, and the pattern is very telling as state leaders warn that the gains from expansive shutdowns have been largely lost.
NMHS first saw 57 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on a cluster of dates in early April, weeks after the first known case of the disease was first identified in the state and just as Gov. Tate Reeves ordered a statewide shelter in place.
The system – which includes hospitals and clinics across the region – next saw a high of 57 hospitalized patients on July 1. As of Saturday, the total stood at 52.
Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been rising and hitting new records. Right now, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeremy Blanchard said NMHS can accommodate increasing patient loads.
“Everybody could be overwhelmed by a big enough surge, but reasonable surges we are prepared to handle,” Blanchard said.
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has seized attention in recent days for his warnings that intensive care capacity at some of the state’s largest hospitals has dwindled.
On paper, NMHS doesn’t typically have much excess ICU capacity either, according to Blanchard. But that’s by design. Medical leadership there utilizes a system that can flex up or down as patient loads diminish or increase. This is common across the healthcare sector.
“From the very beginning we have designed a contraction and expansion tool,” Blanchard said. “We have really created this flexible system.”
But even among mounting caseloads, there is some good news. Based upon increasing familiarity with this new disease, medical treatments have been refined.
For example, Blanchard said that in the state’s first wave of COVID-19, about 40 to 45 percent of NMHS patients hospitalized for the disease required mechanical ventilation. In many parts of the country, governors scrambled to acquire ventilators out of fear hospitals would run out.
Now, amid a second surge, Blanchard said only about 20 to 25 percent of local patients are requiring mechanical ventilation.
Other outcome improvements include at least some decrease in hospitalization time.
“We have adjusted our practices like everyone else,” Blanchard said.
The hospital’s financial outlook has improved as well. During the spring surge, a statewide order temporarily halted elective surgeries to ensure there would be sufficient resources for COVID-19 patients. A halt to those surgeries brought with it a severe financial impact to hospitals.
But now, NMHS President and CEO Shane Spees said the hospital has been able to bring many employees off furloughs and restore reduced hours.
“We saw our volumes gradually rebound during the month of May and by the end of June we were near what we’d consider normal levels, pre-covid levels, in most areas of our system,” Spees said.
However, the Mississippi State Health Department did on Saturday once again largely restrict elective surgeries across the state in an attempt to keep resources available for COVID-19 and other emergency care available.
The Northeast Mississippi region has seen increasing numbers, but it hasn’t yet been deemed among the state’s most significant hot spots. New executive orders by Gov. Tate Reeves, for example, will impose new safety measures in 13 hard-hit counties, none of them in this part of the state. The new orders will include a masking requirement.
But if the northeast region is to remain out of the top tier for COVID-19 transmission in the state, hospital leadership said local citizens must remain vigilant and committed.
Blanchard emphasized the ongoing need for masking, hand washing and social distancing.
“What kind of surge we face is totally dependent on our community,” Blanchard said.