It was early spring, the week of March 23, when two Meridian hospitals announced their first cases of COVID-19.
The patients kept coming.
Health care workers donned layers of protective gear and came face-to-face with a deadly virus at a time when there was still little guidance from medical societies about how to care for patients sickened by it.
“Those nurses were on the front lines,” said Dr. Fred Duggan, Chief Medical Officer for Rush Health Systems. “They were walking into fear every day.”
For 19 weeks, they’ve treated some of the sickest patients in Lauderdale County and their life-saving work shows no signs of letting up.
“I think the perception of a lot of people, when this first started, was this was going to be a sprint,” Duggan said. “It’s a marathon.”
As of Friday, 1,397 people from Lauderdale County have been infected with the coronavirus and 90 have died, according to health department records.
Last week, Mississippi set records for single-day totals of new cases and deaths and this week, Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statewide mask mandate.
“The people working here at the hospital are tired, ready to be finished with this pandemic,” said Dr. Lindsey Prewitt, medical director of Hospitalist Services for Anderson Regional Medical Center. “Now it’s sort of normalized that every day we come back to the same stuff and it’s still scary and it’s still really sad, but it’s also the extra element of the fact that it hasn’t gotten better is frustrating.”
Early on, many of the people Prewitt treated were older.
“It was mostly nursing home patients and most of those people had lots of problems already and they were mostly elderly,” she said. “But it’s definitely in the whole community.”
As of August 1, state records show the age group in the county with the highest number of infections is 18-29 with 219 cases. The age group with the highest number of deaths, 28, is 70-79.
The work has taken a physical and emotional toll on hospital staff.
“Everyone in the (critical care unit) has lost patients to this over these five months and they’ve stood there, they’ve been the last person to speak to the patient,” Prewitt said. “They’ve called the families ... They’ve been the conduit for all of that, in addition to just the physicality of wearing all that (personal protective equipment) and being hot and being careful and taking care of people. It’s extreme nursing and extreme doctoring.”
As of Thursday, Anderson Regional Medical Center had 28 COVID-19 patients, including 11 adults in the ICU, according to health department records.
Rush Foundation Hospital had 16 COVID-19 patients, with five adults in the ICU.
Before the pandemic, an average hospital stay was three to four days, Duggan said.
For coronavirus patients, days 7 through 13 seem to be the worst, and staff might be treating the same patient for three weeks or three months, according to Duggan.
“It’s a drain,” he said. “You’re taking care of patients that are very, very sick that typically don’t do well. I think they’ve become battle-tested ... They’ve all become sort of experts and they really have shown a tremendous amount of resilience. I’m every day just amazed at how well they’re functioning.”
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Both hospitals have used the medication remdesivir and tried to delay putting patients on ventilators, when possible, leaders said.
“We did the late intubation strategy and we’ve done it all along and we think it’s made a real impact in our death rates and how patients have done,” Duggan said.
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While most people who get COVID-19 don't come to the hospital, Prewitt said she has become more concerned about the disease's potential long-term effects on the heart and lungs.
“That's the sort of thing that could change somebody's future,” she said.
As they continue to tend to COVID-19 patients each day, the doctors hope those in the community will wear masks, wash their hands and social distance.
“The safety measures are very, very important,” Duggan said during a phone interview. “I’ve got a mask on while I’m talking to you.”
Prewitt has little patience for those who want to argue about mask requirements, she said.
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“I want them to have to make a phone call to a family who hasn’t been able to see their loved one since they got admitted with COVID,” Prewitt said. “Then the loved one gets on the vent and we do all that we can do and despite that, COVID wins and the patient dies. I want them to make that phone call and tell their family that they’ve lost somebody to this. It’s awful.”