116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Coronavirus transmission rates are at their highest levels in every Iowa county, and after weeks of elevated COVID-19 hospitalizations, local health officials are encouraging people to take precautions ahead of this week’s Thanksgiving celebrations.
In particular, officials with Corridor hospitals say the best step the public can take to keep serious illness and death at bay is to receive a COVID-19 booster shot.
“Everyone should get their booster,” said Dr. Tony Myers, chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. “The booster appears to be having a significant effect on rate of hospitalizations, and therefore an effect on severe illness and death.”
Friday, regulators with both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna booster for everyone 18 and older who had the last of the two shots at least six months ago.
Previously, the extra vaccine dose had been recommended only for certain populations, including those 65 and older, those with underlying medical conditions and those who live or work in high-risk settings.
“Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 and consider getting a booster if you received your vaccine more than six months ago,” said Dr. Theresa Brennan, chief medical officer for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Those who opt not to get the booster shot still should wear masks and follow other mitigation strategies, particularly if they will be around vulnerable populations, said Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
Is it safe to gather?
Hospital leaders had urged Iowans to forgo gatherings ahead of the 2020 holiday season. But this year, with the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, it is safer for individuals to celebrate with others within their household.
“We have a community that’s widely vaccinated, so we have some degree of immunity,” Arnold said.
But gatherings should be done in smaller groups, with seating arrangement to place those from the same household together, health officials say. Arnold also noted populations that are most at risk for an infection, such as those who are immunocompromised, may want to sit out this year’s festivities.
Individuals should mask up, cover their coughs and sneezes, wash hands frequently and stay home if they are experiencing symptoms or otherwise feel ill.
Local health officials also emphasized the importance of getting the flu vaccine, which can be taken at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine or booster.
“A mild illness for you could be more severe for someone else,” said Heather Meador, clinical services supervisor at Linn County Public Health.
Boosters could lower hospitalizations
With the virus transmission rate at its highest level in all 99 counties, according to the CDC, it’s likely the state will see continued increases in infections following Thanksgiving and other upcoming year-end holidays.
"Although we’ve made great strides with vaccinating both kids and adults, the truth is we still have ways to go — and we’re still in a pandemic,“ Brennan said. ”What that means is anytime we see large indoor gatherings, like those we’d expect with the holidays, we look to the possibility of an increase in cases.“
New COVID-19 infections climbed for the fourth week in a row in the past week, which comes at the same time Iowa is reporting an all-time low in the number of available intensive care unit beds, with just 143 available statewide as of this past week, according to coronavirus data from the state public health department.
Both Cedar Rapids hospitals had seen a “steady” flow of COVID-19 patients throughout the fall, with no large increases or decreases.
The spike in new cases in recent weeks may be driven in part by Halloween gatherings and other in-person festivities late last month, Meador said.
The change in federal recommendations on booster doses comes after evidence has found immunity from the coronavirus wanes — or becomes less effective — over time. But a booster shot restored effectiveness of the vaccine against symptoms to 95 percent, research has shown.
In the late summer to early fall, Corridor hospitals began to see higher rates of admission of vaccinated patients as immunity from the coronavirus shots began to lessen.
At Mercy, fully vaccinated patients began to average about 30 percent of all COVID-19 admissions, Myers said. St. Luke’s has seen a similar trend, with about 15 percent of COVID-19 admissions among those who are vaccinated.
Myers said since the extra vaccine dose had been made available to eligible groups, less fully vaccinated patients are being hospitalized with the virus.
“Even if the rate of new cases goes up, we won’t see an increase in hospitalizations,” Myers said.
About 39 percent of fully vaccinated people aged 65 and older and about 17 percent of all adults have received a COVID-19 booster so far, according to the CDC.
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The Washington Post contributed to this report.