TUPELO • Regional hospitals are expanding their resources to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic even as the state’s numbers continue upward, including four additional deaths reported Wednesday.

Three men – one each from Holmes County, Webster County and Wilkinson County – and a woman from Tunica County have died from COVID-19, said the Mississippi State Health Department.

The men were hospitalized and had underlying health conditions. The Holmes County man was between the ages of 60 and 65, the Webster County man was between the ages of 65 and 70, and the Wilkinson County man was between the ages of 85 and 90. The woman was between the ages of 75 and 80 and died in a long-term care facility.

Mississippi’s total count of known COVID-19 cases now stands at 377, with five known deaths, including the first, a Hancock County man. The Health Department reported 57 new cases Wednesday.

“We knew that more deaths would be inevitable, just as we expect numerous new cases. It is a very sad update to report, regardless,” said State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs in a statement.

Lee County’s numbers have climbed again and now stand at 14. Other counties in Northeast Mississippi now also have additional known cases, including Marshall, Oktibbeha and Union. The first known cases in Clay and Prentiss counties were also reported Wednesday.

The predicted upward trajectory of cases in the state continues even as an infusion of supplies from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency hit the ground this week in the state’s northeast corner.

Last week, MEMA distributed 25 percent of its personal protective equipment (PPE) inventory to counties throughout the state, with emergency management coordinators in those counties further distributing that equipment.

Personal protective equipment includes protective masks, gloves, face shields and similar gear, which helps ensure that medical workers can care for infected COVID-19 patients without risking infection themselves.

On Tuesday, Lee County Emergency Management Director Lee Bowdry was personally delivering some of that equipment to hospitals and clinics, including North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.

At a warehouse near the large Tupelo hospital, Bowdry dropped off boxes of N95 masks.

“MEMA is going to start shipping this directly to Tier Ones,” Bowdry said, referring to hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 patients. “But today, I’m still pulling the orders myself.”

Across the last week, some of the state’s top medical experts have sounded the alarm that health system resources could be pushed to the edge by the new coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Alex Jones, director of emergency medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, emphasized this point in a phone call with reporters last week.

“We have precious few healthcare providers, we have precious few PPEs,” Jones said. “We need to preserve those resources the best we can.”

As of Wednesday, North Mississippi Health Services reported 14 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, with another 18 outpatients. That health system has tested 454 individuals, with 113 tests results still pending.

NMHS includes NMMC in Tupelo, the largest non-metropolitan hospital in the country.

Even some smaller facilities are taking steps to handle an expected increase in coronavirus patients. Last week, Panola Medical Center in Batesville announced the creation of a dedicated respiratory care floor to treat patients symptomatic for COVID-19, with 22 rooms available there.

Hospitalization trends in Mississippi are already tending above norms elsewhere, though the state data remains incomplete and likely leans heavily toward hospitalized patients. Mildly symptomatic patients have not been prioritized for testing in the state.

According to data now reported by the Mississippi Health Department, 31 percent of the known COVID-19 patients in Mississippi are hospitalized.

High rates of hospitalization coming within a compressed span of time could overwhelm hospital resources, including PPE, ventilators and available hospital space.

The COVID-19 pandemic is much more dangerous for older patients with other health problems, but medical leaders in the state point out that Mississippi has lots of exactly these kinds of patients.

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com

Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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