Double trouble: Flu season and COVID-19 could overwhelm state’s hospital system, doctors say

Double trouble: Flu season and COVID-19 could overwhelm state’s hospital system, doctors say

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While Mississippi’s hospital system remains strained due to COVID-19, two looming threats could push it even further to the limit: the arrival of flu season in the next few months and an expected surge in coronavirus cases from students returning to school.

Health experts in Mississippi have warned the public about this for weeks, even as they came amid news of declining COVID-19 cases statewide and hospitalizations that have since peaked.

Over the last few days, the daily average of new cases has begun to climb yet again.

“If we do not see a trend that is established with a decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state and we start to see an increase in flu cases across the state, we could get in a worse position than we are right now as far as capacity,” said Dr. Kendall McKenzie, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

He continued, saying, “We are already stressing a system to the maximum across the state with a very limited number of ICU and regular bed, surge beds, available to house patients. Adding additional patients on top of that is further going to stress a fragile system.”

McKenzie speaks from experience. At UMMC, he has seen firsthand what the pandemic has done and what resources they have.

“There’s only so much real estate to put patients inside hospitals that we have in existence right now. There is a possibility that we could overload the system to the point where we have to look at alternate sites to manage the patient load,” McKenzie said, alluding to a possible triage system and field hospitals if things get out of control.

Part of the dilemma comes from how intensive-care units function in Mississippi. Typically, Dr. Jennifer Bryan said, ICUs run high or near capacity on a regular basis because of elective surgeries and respiratory illnesses that provide a steady stream of patients.

COVID, however, throws a curve ball into the normal ebb and flow of the system.

“Last week, I know that 40 percent of the patients in the ICUs across the state were all COVID. That is unprecedented, for one disease process to make up 40 percent of the patients in the ICU,” Bryan said. “These numbers tell you what kind of burden there is on the system.”

In her experience as a family physician, Bryan said influenza usually thrives in schools.

“I make my living off of school starting back, and viruses start to spread. Kids come in sick, and a couple of weeks later, the parents and grandparents do. That’s how viruses spread,” Bryan said. “We opened at a time when community spread was quite rampant and so this is entirely what we expected, to see a large amount of cases.”

Bryan said they’re hopeful that strategies used to curb COVID-19 spread -- masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing -- will also keep the flu at bay also, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.

“There is no predicting where we’re going to be this fall,” McKenzie said.

Copyright 2020 WLBT. All rights reserved.