116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — With cases and hospitalizations spiking once again — despite the wide availability of a free vaccine — Iowa is experiencing its third significant surge of the 18-month-old COVID-19 pandemic.
The virus’ latest trajectory has public health officials across the state expressing grave concern and a little bit of exasperation.
“I am extremely concerned about what’s happening right now,” said Dr. Pramod Dwivedi, director of Linn County Public Health.
Here’s what’s happening right now:
• Virus-related hospitalizations are increasing exponentially: five times higher than roughly six weeks ago, and the highest since around late January and early February, according to the state data.
• Just over the past week, the rate of new cases increased 30 percent and hospitalizations 46 percent, according to data from a weekly White House report.
“We are definitely concerned by the increase in positive cases in Scott County. Our case counts and positivity rates are mirroring where we were last August,” said Brooke Barnes, deputy director of the Scott County Health Department in Davenport.
Public health officials statewide said there are two major drivers of the current COVID-19 surge: the virus’ delta variant, which spreads from person to person more easily than the original virus; and people who have not received one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Just more than 59 percent of people ages 12 years or older — those eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines — have been vaccinated in Iowa, according to federal data. That is a virtual match to the national average.
Public health experts say that generally 70 percent is the public vaccination benchmark to curtail the spread of a virus like COVID-19. And public health leaders across the state said getting more Iowans vaccinated is the best way to stop the current surge in cases and hospitalizations, and the pandemic in general.
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Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine in Iowa has waned in recent weeks, to the point where the state has discarded more than 81,000 unused doses of the vaccine, the state public health department told the Des Moines Register. The department previously warned it may have to discard roughly 217,000 doses by the end of August.
“We have a miracle called vaccine. Why are we squandering that opportunity?” Dwivedi asked. “We are not only jeopardizing our health, but the health of our loved ones and neighbors and everyone we interact with.”
In northwest Iowa’s Woodbury County, just 40.7 percent of the total population is vaccinated, lagging the statewide rate. That concerns Kevin Grieme, director of Siouxland Public Health.
“When you consider that about two out of every three (Woodbury County residents) are not vaccinated, the level of protection that is realized is much lower, which allows the virus to spread,” Grieme said.
The surging number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations has renewed concerns over Iowa’s health care system, which was pushed to the brink during the pandemic’s winter surge. Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines has again suspended elective surgeries.
The vast majority of new hospital admissions are people who are not vaccinated.
“We are in regular communication with our area hospitals. Whenever we have seen increases in positive cases, they have subsequently seen increases in hospitalizations. And that is the case currently,” Scott County’s Barnes said. “We all share concerns with the increases in case counts and what that could mean for our community in the upcoming weeks.”
In Polk County, hospitalizations have increased 300 percent over the past month, said Nola Aigner Davis, public health communications officer with the Polk County Health Department.
“When we don’t curtail the latest surge, we see increases in cases, increases in hospitalizations, and then increases in deaths. It’s that pattern that we have seen throughout this pandemic,” Davis said.
With the delta variant surging and vaccination rates falling short, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending all people, even those who are vaccinated, wear face masks indoors in public areas where transmission of the virus is substantial or high. In Iowa, that includes all but five counties, according to the latest federal data.
Public health officials say wearing a face covering can help even among vaccinated individuals because it still is possible for them to carry and spread the virus. The vaccines’ effectiveness is preventing any contraction from resulting in severe illness or death, experts say.
“We know people are upset by having to wear masks again. Please know this isn’t long term. This is something for right now, not forever,” Davis said. “And we do this to keep our community healthy and we’re doing this to keep our community safe.”
With the pandemic not only dragging on but surging once more, a year and a half after its start and roughly eight months since the vaccines became available, Dwivedi sounds befuddled.
Earlier this week, he was giving his periodic report on the pandemic to the Linn County Board of Supervisors when, he said, anti-vaccine and anti-mask protesters in attendance started yelling at him.
“I don’t know, man,” Dwivedi said. “This is a really crazy time that we live in.”