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Iowa’s state epidemiologist thinks Iowa is not at a turning point with the Delta variant of COVID-19 so far.
In an interview with IowaWatch, Dr. Caitlin Pedati called for Iowans to get vaccinated if they have not, and to continue to use social distancing, face masks and other mitigation measures against the novel coronavirus that was first documented in Iowa in March 2020.
The state epidemiologist and medical director since mid-2018, Pedati spoke with IowaWatch for over an hour after repeated requests for an interview made through the state hygienic lab and the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The following question-and-answer with Pedati was edited for brevity and readability.
Educating the public
IowaWatch: Am I understanding the reporting correctly, that there’s not going to be any sort of notification of long term care facility outbreaks (on the state’s website at coronavirus.iowa.gov)?
Pedati: “So there is still a card under the positive case analysis page that says the number of long-term care facilities, so this is pretty similar. But I will absolutely say, I think I’ve said a million times, and I mean it, if things change, we’ll adjust, you know. If there’s a reason to change what we’re doing or how frequently or that sort of thing, we absolutely will make those changes.”
IowaWatch: Do you not think that we’re on the cusp of (needing to make changes to reporting)? The rapid spread of Delta and looking at the rising cases in Missouri?
Pedati: “No. I have several calls a week with other partners, other states, other federal partners. I know that the director does as well, and many others throughout the department. We absolutely keep an eye on what’s going on. And not just with our neighbors. And not even just nationally. This pandemic truly was a representation of the way that the global community is impacted together. And as long as there are challenges in other places, there’s always going to need to be readiness and capacity for us, because of how people move and travel and all of those good things. I guess what I’m getting at here is it’s absolutely something we want to keep an eye on. We look at several things. One of the really important things lately is keeping an eye on our health care capacity. But, and I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, the best thing anybody can do at this point is get vaccinated. That’s the thing that, you know, that’s the public health control measure.”
Role of elected officials
IowaWatch: “When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds poses (at a bill signing ceremony that included women holding signs) that falsely claim masks cause staph infection, doesn’t that make public health officials’ jobs harder? And doesn’t it make the jobs of the already burned-out Iowa health care workforce harder? I personally know of health care workers in Iowa who have gotten death threats over masks. Masks don’t cause staph.”
Pedati: “No they don’t. …. That’s absolutely the advice that I would provide as well. What I can say is there’s so many really good people in public health. And they’ve been working so hard for so long. I know that it doesn’t always get seen. I know it’s not always clear, but there are a lot of wonderful people who have made really significant sacrifices, personally and professionally over the past year and a half. We’re not going to stop because we believe that it’s important.”
IowaWatch: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared health-related misinformation a serious threat to public health. As Iowa and the nation see a surge in COVID-19 cases, Murthy said it is a “moral and civic imperative” on the part of all Americans to stop its spread. It’s like fighting two pandemics. Scientific communities have been saying that COVID-19 misinformation is killing people.
Pedati: “I think you’re absolutely identifying a lot of the challenges that a lot of people have noted. And again, what I can tell you is every time I’m asked, I continue to extol the value of face coverings, social distancing, staying home when you’re sick and getting vaccinated. The scientific and medical advice that I provided and our local health departments continue to provide are those messages.”
Outbreaks at Iowa Veterans Home
IowaWatch: On June 22, the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown reported the facility’s fifth COVID-19 outbreak. This time it was reportedly a “new” variant — not the original COVID-19 nor the highly-transmissible Delta variant. This reporting caused a lot of confusion. People don’t know what variants are, which ones are out there and how variants are tracked.
Pedati: “When we talk about COVID I am sure we all know it is a virus and when it replicates it causes mutations just like almost every other virus. And that’s going to happen that’s completely expected for viral behavior. But you’re absolutely right, keeping an eye on which of those changes are consequential to understand whether it has an impact on things like transmissibility, health outcomes and whether it has an impact on the effect of things like therapeutics or vaccines.”
IowaWatch: The Iowa Veterans Home is a state owned and operated facility. I called the Veterans Hospital in Des Moines and spoke to a public affairs official who said he didn’t know that there was an outbreak at the IVH, noting the Des Moines facility sees patients from the IVH. There was no communication it seems? And it was a breakthrough infection. Why didn’t they know about the outbreak?
Pedati: “No, that’s helpful. No, I definitely hear you and I, I certainly appreciate your frustrations for sure. You know, and I appreciate you giving examples.”
Test Iowa comes to end
IowaWatch: (Now that Test Iowa drive-though testing sites have closed) is there some sort of strategy to get at-home tests into people’s hands and make sure they know how to use them?
Pedati: “We are working on this and all of this takes collaboration and development. We’re absolutely working on ways to increase the awareness and knowledge about the at-home COVID testing in particular. We’ll do that through the state, through the lab, through stories that people write, through the partners who will be pickup sites, through our local partners, through clinicians, hopefully through social media, through word-of-mouth, all of those ways.”
Vaccination is critical
Pedati: “That’s why I took this job, that’s why I am still in this job, is because I think public health is that important. And so right now a lot of the work we’re focusing on and working with our lab and with the CDC and other states on is related to monitoring and we’re also looking at how we make this (public health system) sustainable moving forward. It’s been a year and a half that we’ve had a public health workforce at the state and local level, working really with no breaks. And that is not sustainable. At the end of the day, as a clinician, and as a public health professional, my mind is always going to what is the control measure? That is the vaccine. The vaccine really is the most important thing that we can talk about, that I can give people information on, that I can encourage others to encourage other people they know to take advantage of. That is the answer and the fact that we have not one, but three vaccines in such a short period of time, I would argue is maybe the most significant scientific breakthrough of all time.”
IowaWatch-The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet that strives to be the state's leading collaborative investigative news organization. Read more at iowawatch.org.