Dolly Monceaux was unvaccinated when she found herself fighting the coronavirus last week from a hospital bed in a Mississippi ICU, unable to see family and struggling to breathe or sleep.
“You don’t know you’re gonna get it, and then you get it and you’re sick,” Monceaux told CNN on Wednesday, breathing through an oxygen mask at Pascagoula Hospital – Singing River Health System. “You don’t know whether you’re gonna live or die.”
The 82-year-old, from Jackson County, Mississippi, had been “on the fence” about the Covid-19 vaccine, but as she continues fighting the virus in the hospital, she has a new perspective, she said.
“All my family wasn’t going to get the shot, but now we are,” Monceaux said. “All my family.”
The first thing she wants to tell her family when she finally gets to see them, Monceaux panted, is “to go get the shot.”
She is one of thousands of unvaccinated people in Mississippi who are quickly overwhelming hospitals and health care workers throughout the state. As Mississippi struggles to contain its newest virus wave, the state is also preparing for the chaos Tropical Storm Ida, which could be a major hurricane along the US Gulf Coast this weekend, may bring.
Mississippi just set a new daily record for Covid-19-related deaths, State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said Tuesday. Of the 895 staffed ICU beds reported across the state, more than 92% are in use and more than 59% of those beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Between July 29 and August 25, 90% of hospitalizations and 87% of deaths due to Covid-19 occurred in people who were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. Only 2% of overall cases were among vaccinated people.
“I think what’s most interesting is the detachment, the complete lack of connection between what we see out in the community with what’s happening in these hospitals,” Dr. Ijlal Babar, who runs the ICU at Pascagoula Hospital, told CNN.
Babar, also the director of pulmonary and critical care at Singing River Health Systems, said the hospital can’t expand Covid-19 capacity fast enough. Although they cleared beds to serve more patients, they lack the staff needed to open them.
Mississippi now has at least 2,000 fewer nurses than it did at the beginning of the year, according to the Mississippi Hospital Association’s Center for Quality & Workforce. The staff shortages add to the growing strain on the state’s hospital system — both due, in large part, to the pandemic.
The vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.
“It’s exhausting, both mentally and emotionally,” Babar said. “I think the most difficult thing emotionally that we are having to deal with now is what do we do with people who been on the ventilator for weeks and weeks and weeks and aren’t getting better?”
But there is a small ray of hope, with the hospital’s vaccination clinic seeing an uptick in people getting shots.
One of those newly convinced people is 19-year-old Isabelle Smith, who has asthma and got such a bad case of the virus that she couldn’t get out of bed.
Her mother, Robin Walls, who is vaccinated and tried to convince Smith to get the vaccine, thought her daughter might die.
“I told her, ‘I’m backing off; I did all I could do,'” Walls said. “She finally came around.”
Antibody therapy is helping patients — and hospitals
To try to curb hospital stays, Singing River Health System established a site for monoclonal antibody treatment, known as mAbs, for outpatients who have the virus but don’t yet need a bed.
Monoclonal antibodies are used to treat adults and pediatric patients 12 years of age and older who’ve contracted Covid-19 but do not have severe cases.
The antibodies, which help keep the disease from progressing, are administered shortly after diagnosis and within 10 days of symptom onset. Studies suggest they don’t help people with severe cases or those already on oxygen.
People with newly diagnosed cases have been clamoring for the treatment, said Chris Ayers, Singing River Health System’s lead clinical pharmacist.
“I’ve been through disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, things like that, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ayers told CNN. “Literally, the phone is ringing off the hook.”
On the treatment site’s long list of patients is Edith Jordan, who is unvaccinated and tested positive last week for the coronavirus, which she believes she contracted from a family member.
Though she believes in the seriousness of the virus and has contracted it herself, Jordan still won’t get the vaccine, she said.
“I’m just not trustful of the data behind it,” she said. When asked what data she is referring to, she declined to respond.
While studies show that mAbs are highly effective at preventing high-risk patients from developing severe Covid-19 symptoms, they aren’t a cure or an option for everyone.
“After about 60 days, these antibodies have done what they’ve done, they’ve flushed the virus out of your system, and then they disappear,” Ayers said. “They don’t stay circulating in your body unlike natural antibodies do, that are caused through your immune system either naturally or through exposure or a vaccine.”
Still, not everyone thinks like Jordan.
Like Monceaux and Smith, Amanda Dunning is singing a different tune after contracting the virus.
“I was hesitant about the whole Covid thing in the beginning, I was like, ‘It’s no big deal, I’m not going get it,'” Dunning, 35, told CNN. “I don’t wish this on anybody. It’s hard. It’s extremely hard.”
Despite initial concerns about the vaccine — and after speaking to professionals about it and doing more research — she has decided to get the shot.
“Until you catch it or until you truly have a loved one that’s going to catch it, it’s not going to hit you full force,” Dunning said. “I feel like Mississippi needs to come together, band together, including our government and our state officials, and say, ‘Look, now’s the time.'”
“I’m convinced. Please just get the vaccine,” she added. “I did a 180, and it’s because of getting Covid.”
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