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Our US southern bureau chief Oliver Laughland brings us the latest from New Orleans, where staff shortages and spiralling cases are pushing hospitals to breaking point:

As the Omicron variant rips through the US, states in the south continue to report record case numbers amid serious concern around hospital staff shortages.

In Mississippi, officials warned this week the hospital system was on the verge of crisis due to staff shortages as local media reported most hospitals in the state were at or had reached capacity during the Omicron surge.

The state already faces a chronic nursing shortage, exacerbated by the pandemic, with approximately 3,000 positions vacant, according to a survey by the Mississippi Hospital Association. Around a third of the state’s hospital nurses have left for other jobs, according to the research, many of them to better paying positions out of state.

People wait in long lines for coronavirus testing, as the Omicron variant continues to spread in Memphis, December 2021.

People waiting in long lines for coronavirus testing in December 2021, as the Omicron variant continued to spread in Memphis. Photograph: Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters

Last week Mississippi recorded its highest seven day average of new Covid cases, 7,185, since the pandemic began, according to state health department data. As of Thursday the number of people hospitalised with Covid in the state had risen to 1,332 people. Health department data showed that 90% of Covid deaths for the period between 16 December 2021 and 12 January 2022 had been among unvaccinated people.

“The game has changed since the Delta wave,” said Dr Alan Jones, chancellor of clinical affairs at University of Mississippi Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, during a Tuesday press conference reported by Mississippi Today.

Jones continued: “The challenges we are facing are really around staffing. Compounding that is that this is a much more infectious variant, taking more staff out that we have in the workforce.”

In Nashville, one of the city’s largest hospitals was being forced to reassign specialist staff to cope with the Omicron surge. As of Tuesday, Tennessee hit its peak Covid-positive seven-day average of 14,345 new cases, according to CDC data.

“We have tons of employees that have Omicron Covid,” said Dr Todd Rice, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in an interview with local radio. “One of our biggest problems is just finding employees to take care of patients because we have so many employees that are out sick.”

You can read Oliver Laughland’s alarming dispatch here:


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