Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves listens as state emergency management executive director Greg Michel speaks during his news briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Headquarters in Pearl, Miss., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

by Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

Mississippi will open a 50-bed field hospital and the federal government will send medical professionals to help treat patients as COVID-19 cases continue surging in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S., officials said Wednesday.

Many Mississippi hospitals face a crunch for space and staffing. The temporary facility will be in a parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and it could be open by Friday.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the head of UMMC, said the facility should help with an influx of patients, including some transferred from smaller hospitals. She described the field hospital as “a Band-Aid.”

“The big solution is, let’s get this surge under control, and let’s get the spread of this virus under control,” Woodward said during a news conference. “And the way that we do that is by getting people vaccinated.”

The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Monday that intensive care units were full in all 35 of the Level 1, 2 and 3 hospitals in the Mississippi’s acute care systems. Those include the University of Mississippi Medical Center; North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo; Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg; Memorial Hospital in Gulfport and Singing River Health System in Pascagoula.

COVID-19 cases in Mississippi have risen sharply in recent weeks because of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus. The state has been approaching its record number of hospitalizations from the virus.

Mississippi’s highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations for a single day was 1,444 on Jan. 4, before vaccines against the virus were widely available. The state Health Department reported Wednesday that 1,378 patients with COVID-19 were in Mississippi hospitals Tuesday. That was down from 1,410 the day before.

The department said 35% of Mississippi residents are fully vaccinated, compared to about 50% nationally. It also said that between July 13 and Tuesday in Mississippi, unvaccinated people made up 97% of those newly diagnosed with COVID-19, 90% of those hospitalized with it and 84% of those who died from it.

Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has requested help from other states to deal with the surge of virus cases. He also said the agency is starting to set contracts with private entities to get additional medical workers.

“My number one goal from day one of this pandemic has always been to protect the integrity of our health care system,” Republican Reeves wrote on Facebook. “The current phase of the pandemic seems more and more like a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’ – as the Delta variant has had very few breakthrough cases amongst those who have ‘gotten the shot’ – but the goal remains the same: ensure everyone that can get better with quality care receives that quality care!”

More than 1,000 teachers and students in Mississippi schools  tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the Health Department said Wednesday. But the case numbers could be much larger because schools from only 43 of the state’s 82 counties provided information to the state, and private schools have not been reporting virus cases. About 442,600 students were enrolled in Mississippi public schools last academic year.

Some schools started classes in late July, but most have been starting this month. Reeves has said he does not intend to set a statewide mask mandate this school year, leaving decisions about mask-wearing up to local school boards.

The state Health Department on Wednesday reported 3,163 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Mississippi. Mississippi has about 3 million residents. The department has reported 371,712 cases of COVID-19 and 7,710 coronavirus-related deaths in the state since the pandemic started.