Poverty and politics have left the state with fewer doctors and nurses than it needs and hospitals on the brink of shutdown.

By Richard Fausset

On the ground floor of a parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, there are coronavirus patients where the cars should be — about 20 of them on any given day, laid up in air-conditioned tents and cared for by a team of medical personnel from a Christian charity group. Another garage nearby has been transformed into a staging area for a monoclonal antibody clinic for Covid-19 patients.

These scenes, unfolding in the heart of Mississippi’s capital city, are a clear indication that the health care system in the nation’s poorest state is close to buckling under the latest avalanche of cases triggered by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

“We have reached a failure point,” LouAnn Woodward, the medical center’s top executive, said late last week. “The demand has exceeded our resources.”

The current coronavirus spike has hit the South hard, but a combination of poverty and politics made Mississippi uniquely unprepared to handle what is now the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation. The state has fewer active physicians per capita than any other. Five rural hospitals have closed in the past decade, and 35 more are at imminent risk of closing, according to an assessment from a nonprofit health care quality agency. There are 2,000 fewer nurses in Mississippi today than there were at the beginning of the year, according to the state hospital association.

“If you look around, the state’s hospitals were in bad shape before there was such a thing as Covid,” said Marty Wiseman, an emeritus political science professor at Mississippi State University. “It was not a good time to layer a pandemic on top of that.”

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