JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - For months, doctors and nurses on the front lines of Mississippi’s coronavirus response have muddled through a myriad of outcomes and diagnoses, many of them deadly, a harsh reality that one physician compares to the horrors of wartime combat.
In this unforgiving environment, health care workers were dealt yet another blow last week: one of Merit Health Natchez’s longest-serving nurses, Sandra Powell, died of COVID-19 complications after nearly two months battling the disease from a hospital bed.
Powell was 53.
“We hoped and hoped until, you know, until the end,” said friend and coworker Shannon Russ. “We were still hoping that she was going to come out of it, come home and eventually come back and be at work with us.”
Russ described Powell as a natural caregiver, someone whose personality fit perfectly with her career choice: a registered nurse working more than twenty years in the hospital’s emergency department.
“She had a sweet soul. Always had a smile. If she was mad, you never knew it,” Russ said. “When somebody wants to get a little testy, you know, we’re like, ‘Now you know what Sandra would tell you?Don’t do that. Don’t act like that.’”
Powell was one of at least seventy Adams County residents who have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began ten months ago.
In the first twenty days of January, coronavirus deaths reported each day by the Mississippi State Department of Health have soared more than 40 percent over the same period last month, the third such time that has happened since October.
For frontline workers in the state’s health care industry who care for and comfort COVID-19 patients until their final moments, it’s a certainty that only weighs heavier on them as the pandemic surges forward.
“We’re reaping the reward of the crop of bad decisions that were made, about gathering together in groups and not wearing masks, and all of a sudden, we’re reaping those rewards. And that harvest is coming due now. And it is a terrible, terrible harvest of death,” said Dr. Mark Horne, who serves as president of the state’s medical association.
By November 20, daily reported deaths from MSDH reached 310.
The next month, that number almost doubled to 602.
January’s reported daily death toll thus far stands at 855, a 42 percent increase over December, and by far the highest count since the pandemic began over an almost-three-week period.
At the same time, hospitalizations have started to decrease and the seven-day average of daily coronavirus cases has begun to trend down once again, meaning deaths will eventually trend downward, too.
Horne said those are encouraging points, but hospitals across the state haven’t seen relief yet.
At South Central Regional Medical Center where Horne also serves as chief medical officer, he said they are at 200 percent of their current ICU capacity.
“This would be like saying my production line, we’re starting to tail off production. But we have absolutely filled the warehouses with very sick people,” Horne said. “We’ve seen an inflection point, and if we can hold the line and keep doing positive things, continue our personal distancing, continue the use of masks, continue avoiding some large crowds, then we can continue to see these numbers get better.”
Until those deaths decrease, the never-ending cycle in the state’s hospitals will continue to wear down even the best-trained personnel, he said.
“It’s the unnecessary death, it’s the death that could have been prevented that breaks us. That really just breaks our spirits,” Horne said.
And when it happens to someone in the health care industry, it makes an already fragile situation even worse, Merit Health Natchez CEO Lance Boyd said.
“To have one of one of our own nurses that we love and have worked with for years, to give in and succumb to this disease and pass away, it kind of amplified the stress that everybody’s been under,” Boyd said.
Boyd told 3 On Your Side that the hospital has begun offering grief counseling for the staff to help them process Powell’s death, but it doesn’t change the reality of what these workers still see each day.
“They build a relationship with that patient, they get to see the agony the patient and the family goes through. And it’s very stressful mentally, to the nurses, the patient and the family,” Russ said. “Heartbreaking when the patient doesn’t make it.”
Russ said she hopes more people will realize the virus is real before it’s too late and sign up to get the vaccine.
Already some of her coworkers have done so, likely because of Powell’s struggle with the virus.
“Between the beginning and a month ago, I’ve seen a lot of a lot of death, a lot of suffering, and I don’t want to give it to anyone and cause that, nor do I want to be that person,” Russ said.