Expert: State’s health care system starting to ‘crumble’ from pandemic, other factors

Investigation finds bridge closures increasing in handful of counties, nurse numbers declining statewide
Updated: Mar. 22, 2021 at 9:38 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Two years after a 3 On Your Side investigation highlighted the struggles of getting emergency care in Mississippi’s rural counties, an expert on the subject says the state’s health care system has started to crumble from the coronavirus pandemic and other factors, like a decline in nurses.

At the same time, some factors affecting emergency medical technicians, like road and bridge closures, have improved statewide.

In 2019, our joint 3 On Your Side investigation with Mississippi Today uncovered holes in the fabric of our state’s health care system, pockets where people don’t get adequate ambulance coverage and can’t even get emergency care in their own county.

“Where you live affects your health outcomes,” said Ryan Kelly, who served as chairman of Mississippi’s Rural Health Task Force under Gov. Phil Bryant. “It is a sad truth.”

Kelly now works as executive director of the Mississippi Rural Health Association.

Our 2019 investigation showed how EMTs in particular are affected because of a shortage of ambulances and a patchwork of emergency rooms and hospitals in many areas of Mississippi.

“For us to continue to provide care and leave another county, my primary county, uncovered for four to six hours to me, it’s unacceptable,” Rural Rapid Response owner Tyler Blalock told WLBT in 2019.

Some of those barriers to emergency service were actual barriers.

Our 2019 investigation revealed more than 500 bridges across the state had been shut down, deemed unsafe to use.

Two years later, nearly 150 bridges have reopened, improving ambulance response time when navigating those rural roads.

In a handful of counties, the problem’s actually gotten worse, however.

A 3 On Your Side analysis finds Holmes, Humphreys and Yazoo counties have seen bridge closures increase by more than 40 percent in two years.

In fact, the number of bridges shut down in Yazoo County spiked 163 percent in that timeframe, from 8 in 2019 to 21 closures now.

“If you are only able to access a hospital or a clinic based on very limited thoroughfares in our counties, those become degraded,” Kelly said earlier this month. “That’s a tremendous access problem, whereas you may go from a 15 or 20 minute drive to a one hour drive to access care.”

Those critical minutes are also affected by how many emergency rooms and hospitals are available across the state.

In 2019, we found 14 counties didn’t have emergency rooms in Mississippi, a statistic that remains the same.

For some facilities, Kelly said the workforce itself is also affected.

Nurses are leaving Mississippi in larger numbers to other states that pay more.

“It’s kind of hard to blame them. If you make $100 an hour in Mississippi, you can make $160 somewhere else,” Kelly said. “It’s really hard to justify staying here when you could go do that.”

Kelly says COVID-19 has accelerated the crumbling of our health care infrastructure in recent months.

At the height of the pandemic, Mississippi’s hospitals buckled under the pressure of dealing with an avalanche of patients and finite resources to handle them.

Even now, the state remains on the list for being at most critical risk of hospital closures.

“I’m afraid we’re at the point where if one person gets sick for more than a few weeks, and the bills don’t go out, that hospital, it may be the difference in them being open and not being open,” Kelly said. “So we have some that are that close, to where they’re not taking vacations, because there’s no one else that can do that job. And if that job isn’t done, there’s no hospital anymore.”

Despite additional hospital closures in the South in recent years, Mississippi has not had a hospital shut down since Quitman County Hospital in Marks closed its doors in September 2016, according to data from the Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

Kelly said broadband advances across the state will eventually bring telehealth to some of those places without emergency care, but it’s still a long way off.

“This is great news for us, but it’s not there yet. I mean, you see trucks down the road that are laying line, but it may take years for this to really fully expand into our rural areas,” Kelly said.

This story is part of a series of reports collectively addressing the nation’s great health divide, part of a partnership between Gray Television and Google.

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