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Mississippi On Track To Become No. 1 State For New Coronavirus Cases Per Capita

LouAnn Woodward, who leads the University of Mississippi Medical Center, supports a statewide mask mandate. But she says state leaders are "in a pickle," based on medical advice against popular opposition.
Joe Ellis/UMMC Photography
LouAnn Woodward, who leads the University of Mississippi Medical Center, supports a statewide mask mandate. But she says state leaders are "in a pickle," based on medical advice against popular opposition.

Mississippi is heading for a title that no state would want: It is on track to overtake Florida to become the No. 1 state for new coronavirus infections per capita, according to researchers at Harvard.

The state already faces high levels of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and obesity.

As a result, the challenges specific to the coronavirus pandemic are "layered on top of our existing challenges," says Dr. LouAnn Woodward, who is the top executive at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

By multiple measures, the coronavirus situation in the state will continue to worsen, Woodward tells All Things Considered.

Most of the state's major hospitals have had challenges with capacity, particularly ICU capacity, in recent weeks, says Woodward, who is also dean of the University of Mississippi's medical school and an emergency medicine doctor.

As of July 31, only 17% of the state's 904 ICU beds were available, according to the state health department.

She supports a statewide mask mandate. Mississippi's governor has imposed certain mask requirements on 37 of Mississippi's 82 counties but has not implemented a statewide mandate.

Here are excerpts from the full interview.

When you say this is challenging for hospitals and it's going to get worse, what does that actually look like in the ICU?

So our ICUs [at the hospital] are full. I mean, that is the bottom line. We have been full for several weeks. When other hospitals around the state call us for help, we're unable to take their patients. We've had to assist a number of times in having patients transferred actually out of state.

The patients with COVID are staying typically longer than many of our critical care patients, so they are tying up beds for a longer period of time. As the time goes on, we're also seeing the fatigue that our own, particularly critical care teams, but also emergency department teams and our COVID units, are experiencing. And part of that challenge is we don't know the endpoint. ...

We know this is not forever. We know that there is a term limit on our acute dealings with this virus in this pandemic. But it is unknown at this point. And so that adds to the fatigue and to the concern that I have for our staff.

Do you feel like state officials are your partners in this? There is no statewide mask requirement. Restaurants and bars are open. Does it feel like politicians in the state are listening to you when you say how dire the situation is?

It is very difficult because as a group of citizens, in Mississippi, there is a lot of value that is placed on the individual's ability to make decisions about their own life. The citizens in Mississippi very much value that freedom to make their own decisions and not be told what to do based on hot spots and based on numbers identified throughout the state. The governor is practically on a daily basis adding new counties to the mask mandate as we have an increase of cases in particular counties. And I wish that he would proceed to a statewide mask mandate.

But there are a lot of citizens ... that would not support that. So our state officials are in a pickle, honestly, because they are in a bind between what the medical profession is telling them and what they know would be the opinion of a lot of the people in the state of Mississippi who would prefer to not be told, but prefer to wear the mask if they feel that they should.

Speaking from a medical standpoint, if you look at the data, what we have been doing has not changed the trajectory of our number of hospitalizations, the number of new cases, etc. We need to do something different.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.