Mississippi Down to 6 ICU Beds and Arkansas to 25 as COVID Cases Rage in the South

The highly transmissible delta variant has led to a surge of cases nationwide, and  undervaccinated areas as seeing a major rise in hospitalizations

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With COVID-19 cases surging nationwide, areas with low vaccination rates are dealing with a steep rise in hospitalizations and a shortage of ICU beds.

In the last 14 days, U.S. cases have soared by 131% with around 100,000 new infections a day, the most since February, when COVID-19 vaccines were not widely available. The biggest outbreaks are centered in southern states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, which have some of the highest per capita cases in the country.

All six states are at the bottom of the list as far as vaccinations, with less than 50% of residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And as the highly contagious delta variant continues to circulate around the country, undervaccinated areas are seeing the largest rise in both infections and hospitalizations, with residents left exposed to the virus.

In Mississippi, where just 35% of residents are fully vaccinated, hospitals across the state are down to just six remaining ICU beds as of Wednesday morning, Dr. Jonathan Wilson, chief administrative officer at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told NBC News.

Wilson said that they're trying to move ICU patients — which include non-COVID illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes — if possible because they anticipate hospitalizations to continue rising.

"We are at the cusp of this. We know that we aren't at the crest of this wave," he said. "It's bad, but it's probably going to get a little worse."

Just west of Mississippi, in Arkansas, they have 25 remaining hospital beds in the state, according to KARK-TV. Just 37% of residents are fully vaccinated.

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In Louisiana, 90% of hospitalizations are in unvaccinated people and several regions in the state the number of available hospital beds is in the single digits.

"We're rationing care to be able to see the sickest people first, and that means that we are not providing adequate care to many people right now so that we can meet the needs of the sickest first," Dr. Catherine O'Neal, the chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, told NBC News. "That safety net of care that every community depends on for every type of illness is starting to break down, and that's very concerning."

The delta variant is the most transmissible strain of COVID-19 yet, with the Centers of Disease Control reporting that it is likely as contagious as the chicken pox and causes more severe illness.

"I think people need to understand that we're not crying wolf here. This is serious," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week. "It's one of the most transmissible viruses we know about. Measles, chickenpox, this — they're all up there."

The rise in cases has led the CDC to reverse their recommendations and urge everyone — including vaccinated people — to wear masks indoors.

Meanwhile, South Korea's Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Tuesday that they've seen at least two cases with what is being called the delta-plus variant, an even more transmissible version of the strain. However, it does not appear to be dominating over the original delta variant.

"To date, there is no clear evidence that it conveys enough of a benefit to the virus to allow it to dominate the original delta variant," Colin Angus, a public health policy modeler and analyst in England, told the Washington Post. "So although it is clearly here, there is no obvious sign that it has gained a foothold over existing variants of the virus."

Still, the best way to slow the creation of new COVID-19 variants is to stop the virus from spreading with vaccinations.

"It's so important to protect yourself, your family, your community and our country by getting vaccinated," Dr. Rachel Levine, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, previously told PEOPLE. "This is how our country moves forward."

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