JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Leaders with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) held a news conference on Wednesday, August 18, to discuss the rising number of COVID-19 infections in the state.

They said almost 1,000 hospital beds that could be used to treat patients during the latest surge of coronavirus in the state are unstaffed because of a shortage of healthcare workers. That’s while Mississippi is facing a record number of people hospitalized with the virus — 1,633 on Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health.

“We’re still nowhere near the staff we need for the beds we need,” said Jim Craig, Senior Deputy for the Mississippi Department of Health and Director of Health Protection.

Craig said 73 hospitals in Mississippi requested over 1,451 staff members to treat patients. More than 250 people were waiting in Mississippi emergency rooms for beds Wednesday morning, according to health officials. If those positions were filled, the state could staff 771 medical-surgical beds and 235 intensive care unit beds.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency are in the process of trying to contract with healthcare workers to come to the state of Mississippi.

Nurses are the most needed position. Reeves said hospitals throughout Mississippi have lost nearly 2,000 nurses during the pandemic.

Mississippi is one of the lowest-paying states for healthcare workers. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that is one reason why healthcare workers have left.

“A minority of folks, for very understandable reasons, are pursuing better income,” Dobbs said. “But most people are staying here and suffering through it with the community and sacrificing a lot to save their neighbors.”

Dobbs said workers on the frontlines are exhausted.

“We’re clearly at the worst part of the pandemic that we’ve seen throughout, and it’s continuing to worsen,” he said.

According to Dobbs, 98% of the coronavirus cases and 89% of the hospitalizations are those who are unvaccinated.

MSDH reported 4,085 new cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Mississippi on Wednesday, along with 36 additional deaths.

Dobbs said vaccine numbers have increased in Mississippi in recent weeks. He believe those numbers will help in the long term as fall approaches.

Health leaders also discussed COVID-19 cases in schools. On Tuesday, State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said about 20,000 students are currently quarantined for COVID-19 exposure in the state, which is about 4.5% of the public school population.

Byers said it’s important that all eligible students get the vaccine to slow the spread of the virus. MSDH is working with several schools to have testing sites and vaccination sites on campus. According to Byers, 21 schools have signed up to have vendors come out and test students.

Craig said more federal relief is also on the way to help Mississippi. Two field hospitals have been sent up at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) in Jackson to help take on more COVID-19 patients.

The DMAT team was scheduled to leave the field hospital next week, but a new team will be coming in to replace them. Samaritan’s Purse opened a field hospital at UMMC on Wednesday.

Leaders also announced MSDH will reopen the testing center at Trustmark Park in Pearl on Thursday, August 19.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.