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Amid COVID-19 Surge, Rural Mississippi Hospital Verges On Full Capacity

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By almost any measure, the United States is seeing the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic right now. New records were set in just the past week for both the highest number of new daily COVID cases reported and the highest number of deaths in a 24-hour period - all this while public health officials are warning that the worst of the pandemic may yet be to come.

And one of the biggest fears is that as new cases continue to surge, hospitals in some parts of the country could run out of capacity to treat everybody coming through the doors, so we wanted to begin today by hearing how one facility is trying to cope with this challenge. Winston Medical Center in Louisville, Miss., is a small hospital in a rural part of a state that's just recorded its own new daily case record. We're joined now by its CEO, Paul Black.

Mr. Black, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

PAUL BLACK: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, could you just give us an overview of the situation in your area?

BLACK: It's about like it is all across the country. We're seeing increased cases county-wide, you know, especially those that are being admitted to the hospital. We're bumping up against being full almost every day.

MARTIN: And a lot of the - kind of the people who keep track of these things were predicting a surge around this time of year. What about you? Were you expecting to see so many cases right now? And if so, how did you prepare?

BLACK: Yes, ma'am. We were. We anticipated having this type of surge around Thanksgiving. And quite honestly, we don't think we're through it yet. It's going to be going on probably, I think, through the first part of next year. But as far as preparing, what we've done to get ready as far as PPE is concerned, several months ago, we started getting our stock up to a certain level that we felt like was a good level to be at if we were to get in the situation we're in now.

MARTIN: Were you able to get what you needed? I mean, remember - I think people may remember at the beginning of this whole crisis back in March, that was a big problem. And in fact, you know, from state to state, people - the states kind of felt like they were competing with each other to get these necessary items. So have you been able to get what you need so far?

BLACK: Yes, we have. If you'll remember, it was difficult at the very beginning, and then it was real difficult when we had the first surge back at the latter part of July and the first part of August. But once that kind of slacked off a little bit, the supplies became more readily available. And at that time, that's when we started to increase our inventory. We wanted to get to a place that we felt we'd be comfortable at in case the supplies did become more scarce.

MARTIN: You know, we talked about that whole Thanksgiving spike, and a lot of people were expecting one because of Thanksgiving travel, you know, despite the fact that, you know, a lot of the public health folks were just begging people to stay home. But for whatever reason, a lot of people felt like they had to travel, they wanted to travel. And now they're saying it's too soon to seek a spike in numbers just from Thanksgiving travel and gatherings. So why do you think we're seeing a surge in Mississippi right now and in other states?

BLACK: I personally think it is Thanksgiving-related, either a little bit before or a little bit after. You can usually - what I've been told and what I've been able to see is if there's an event where there's going to be a lot of community interaction, people gathering when they really shouldn't be, it's usually seven to 10 days after the fact that you see the surge or the increase in cases. And so this is about where we thought it was going to be.

The other part of it is the weather starting to turn a little bit cooler. It's just a matter of people getting more, you know, condensed inside in groups and people just being a little lax. Then they're not adhering to the mask mandate or the mask usage, social distancing, the washing of hands. You know, if it's not affecting you, sometimes people - they just don't follow the rules.

MARTIN: And when we talk about the capacity issue at your hospital, just at your place, what are we talking about here? And you haven't reached that point yet. But I'm just trying to ask you to sort of paint me a picture. Is it that you have X number of beds available, but if you get more people beyond that, you know, what's going to happen? Could you just help me see it?

BLACK: Like you said at the beginning, we're a small rural hospital in rural Mississippi. We've only got 14 acute care beds. And - but we do have some areas that we could do for overflow. The biggest issue we're having right now is that if we had another 50 beds, it wouldn't do us any good because we don't have the staff to maintain those beds.

In our particular situation, even in the last week to 10 days, in our long-term care facility, we've had the situation where we're down about 30 employees either because we've just got staffing shortages already or the staff has actually tested positive. So that's the biggest issue. We could add all the beds we wanted to, even in the state and even in the nation, I think. But the issue's going to be staffing those beds with nurses and the correct number of medical personnel.

MARTIN: And I hate to raise this possibility, but I have to ask, what happens if you cannot treat someone or a number of people at the hospital? What can you do? Can you send them to a bigger regional hospital? What's the plan for that?

BLACK: That's what we try and do. But even the latter part of this week, statewide, right now, I believe we're at the highest inpatient level in the state as far as COVID patients are concerned, and also in the ICUs. So we're calling around. We're even trying to find beds out of state if we have to. You just try and get on the phone and call and do the best you can with those patients that are in the facility.

And a lot of times, it's not necessarily COVID patients that we need to get transferred. It's other patients, patients that may have been in a vehicle accident or have a heart attack or have some situation like that where they need specialty care at a much larger facility.

MARTIN: If folks are listening to our conversation right now, people in your community who are served by your hospital, if they happen to be listening - I hope they are - is there something you'd want to tell them?

BLACK: I would just plead with them, beg them to just heed the warnings that are out there - that this is not fake. This is not some conspiracy out there. This is real, and it's not going away anytime soon. I mean, it won't go away even when we start getting the vaccines because the vaccines are not going to be out there and be readily available for the general public probably until the middle of 2021.

So please, everybody, wear the mask, keep socially distanced, wash your hands. I know it's difficult, but don't have these big family gatherings. Just chalk up 2020 to just being a bad year and make up for it when everything's over.

MARTIN: That was Paul Black. He is the CEO of Winston Medical Center. That's in Louisville, Miss.

Paul Black, thank you so much for speaking with us today. We appreciate you.

BLACK: Thank you. I appreciate you asking me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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