Military doctors and other federal emergency personnel are shoring up exhausted health teams in some parts of the US south where low vaccination rates are fueling the latest Covid-19 crisis.
As many hospitals struggle to avoid being overwhelmed, one hospital in Louisiana praised Pentagon medics for helping them cope, while health officials in Mississippi reported that four pregnant women died of Covid-19 in one a hospital there, and the governor of Kentucky called the situation in his state “dire”.
In a press briefing last week, the White House announced that as part of its Covid-19 surge response team, it has deployed over 350 EMTs, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to provide emergency medical care.
The response teams are also working with 18 states “pulling in personnel, resources, supplies, and expertise from across the federal government, including from Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Defense, and the Veterans Affairs to address state specific needs.”
The White House’s recent deployment comes approximately a month since its first deployment of response teams.
Already overwhelmed by a surge in infected patients, many hospitals in Louisiana are now struggling to deal with the damages caused by Hurricane Ida, such as debris, water leaks and broken generators.
Last week, 20 military doctors arrived at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a major hospital in the state. According to the hospital, an average of one infected patient is being admitted every hour.
“We simply just didn’t have the manpower or womanpower to see the number of patients we had in the ICUs, so we were fortunate to get some help,” Dr Abdulla Moosa, a pulmonary critical care physician at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, said in a CNN interview on Monday.
Captain Joshua Lowe, an emergency medicine physician of the 81st medical group with the Baton Rouge task force sent by the Pentagon, described the recent surge in cases at the hospital. “What we’ve seen is a lot of very young people with Covid, as opposed to the first couple of waves, these are younger, healthier people [in the hospital],” Lowe told CNN.
In Mississippi, hospitals are also being overwhelmed in a surge in cases, which has largely been driven by its low vaccination rate. Only about 38% of the state’s 3 million people are fully inoculated.
Around two weeks ago, an air force team of medics was deployed to the University of Mississippi medical center. The surge response team included 20 medics, 14 nurses, four medical doctors and two respiratory technicians.
“They are all working side-by-side with our clinical patients, taking care of our patients, the emergency department, the medical surgical floor – just helping out,” said Jonathan Wilson, UMMC’s chief administrative officer.
The hospital is seeing people arriving in denial about the severity of their own illness or the virus itself, with visitors frequently trying to enter hospitals without masks, staff reported.
Medical staff see the painful look of recognition on patients’ faces when they realize they made a mistake not getting vaccinated and they hear the constant misinformation about the coronavirus that their patients explain to them.
“There’s no point in being judgmental in that situation. There’s no point in telling them, ‘You should have gotten the vaccine or you wouldn’t be here,’” said Dr Risa Moriarity, executive vice chair of the UMMC’s emergency department.
“We don’t do that. We try not to preach and lecture them. Some of them are so sick they can barely even speak to us.”
The emergency room and intensive care unit are beyond capacity, almost all with Covid patients. Moriarity said it’s like a “logjam” with beds in hallways, patients being treated in triage rooms.
In one hospital in Mississippi, four pregnant women died last week, said state health officer Thomas Dobbs. Three of them required emergency C-sections and babies were born severely premature.
“This is the reality that we’re looking at and, again, none of these individuals were vaccinated,” Dobbs said.
In July, shortly after Biden’s announcement of surge response team deployments, Missouri reached out to the White House for help.
The rise in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations came amid the state’s low vaccination rates. Similarly, in August, Biden offered federal support to Arkansas when the state just had eight open ICU beds.
Last week, Fema deployed 20 military medical personnel to Dothan, Alabama, for the first time in the pandemic.