JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's five largest hospitals had no intensive care unit beds available for patients by midweek because of a surge in coronavirus cases, officials reported Thursday. Four more hospitals had 5% or less of those beds available.

“I was woken up by a phone call yesterday morning at 4 a.m. because we had so many patients at our hospital, we didn’t know where to put them,” Dr. Alan Jones, assistant vice chancellor for clinical affairs of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said Thursday.

Mississippi has one of the fastest-growing rates of new coronavirus cases in the United States. One county, Grenada, saw a 22% increase in reported cases from last week to this week. Simpson County saw an 18% increase.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Gov. Tate Reeves said that starting early next week, he will require people to wear masks in public in 13 counties showing the greatest recent increases in coronavirus cases. Those include Grenada and Hinds County in the Jackson area. Business owners in those counties will be asked to screen employees for COVID-19 before starting a shift.

The governor also announced that in those counties, he will limit gatherings to 10 people indoors and 20 outdoors. The current statewide limit is 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

Compounding Mississippi's rising cases is the fact that it is one of the states with the fewest health care resources in the country, and hospitals are already stretched thin, a panel of medical officials said at a news conference Thursday. On June 15, the Mississippi Department of Health reported 467 patients hospitalized for the virus. Just weeks later, the state reported Thursday, hospitals had 686 confirmed coronavirus patients and 255 suspected coronavirus patients.

"Our biggest medical institutions, who take care of our sickest patients, have no room,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said.

This shortage has impacted facilities’ ability to not only care for patients with the virus but other emergency patients as well. The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is the only hospital in the state that cares for major trauma victims and transplant patients, for example. UMMC emergency care physician, Dr. Ustav Nandi, said the hospital is no longer able to accept transfers of patients from other hospitals with ailments such as strokes or heart attacks

Hospital officials are gravely concerned.

“While I know COVID-19 is on the forefront of everyone’s minds right now, other diseases have not taken a backseat during this pandemic,” Nandi said. “We want to be there so that we can take care of our patients when they come in for emergencies: heart attacks, strokes, sepsis, trauma, other infections.”

Dobbs said facilities have begun sending patients out of state for care.

“There are already ... people with adverse health outcomes because they can't access the healthcare they need because they can't get to a hospital,” he said.

Dobbs said he expects the situation to worsen.

As case numbers have risen, demand for testing has increased. Two months ago, 150 people a day were making appointments to be tested at the Department of Health's free testing site. On Wednesday, the state tested 875 people.

Mississippi consistently ranks as one of the lowest states in national evaluations of healthcare access and outcomes.

Mississippi has a population of about 3 million. The Health Department said Thursday that the state has had at least 33,591 cases and 1,204 deaths from the coronavirus as of Wednesday evening. That is an increase of 703 cases and 16 deaths over numbers reported the day before, with three of those deaths occurring between June 28 and July 8 and being identified by death certificates.

The department said at least 2,882 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 580 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

The number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older patients and those with other health problems.

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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