116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — While Iowans are gathering with family members and friends for the holidays, every county in the state is listed as a “red zone” for high transmission rates and is experiencing yet another surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — the worst since last year this time.
The latest surge is fueled by the omicron variant — which early research suggests is far more transmissible — and is once again putting severe stress on Iowa’s health care systems. Once again, hospitals are overflowing and health care professionals are overworked as they face a disease that show no signs of letting up.
COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Iowa have not been this high since December 2020, when the state was just beginning to come back down from the worst surge of the pandemic, according to state data. At that time, the COVID-19 vaccine was just beginning to be available in Iowa and very few people outside of a few priority groups like health care workers had it.
This recent surge is led by the people who still haven’t been vaccinated all these months later. Those who are not fully vaccinated account for nearly 9 out of every 10 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, and more than 4 out of every 5 COVID-19 patients overall, according to state figures.
“To keep our families and communities safe, it is not recommended that unvaccinated Iowans travel or attend in-person gatherings during the holidays. However, if folks who are unvaccinated decide to do these things, they should wear a mask around others and in public places and practice good hand hygiene.” — Dr. Jeremy Granger, medical director at UnityPoint Clinic in Sioux City
In Iowa, 62.5 percent of people eligible to get the vaccines — those who are 5 years and older — are fully vaccinated, which is the 26th-highest rate in the country, according to federal data. And 44.8 percent of Iowa adults who are fully vaccinated have also received a booster shot; that’s the fourth-best rate in the nation, according to federal data.
With the infection once again surging during the holiday season, the Des Moines Bureau asked medical experts to answer questions about how Iowans can be safe in the coming weeks
Q: Should unvaccinated Iowans travel or gather with family during the holiday?
Dr. Jeremy Granger, medical director at UnityPoint Clinic in Sioux City: “In order to keep our families and communities safe, it is not recommended that unvaccinated Iowans travel or attend in-person gatherings during the holidays. However, if folks who are unvaccinated decide to do these things, they should wear a mask around others and in public places and practice good hand hygiene.”
Dr. Timothy Horrigan, MercyOne Waverly Family Medicine: “Unvaccinated adults place themselves at very high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus (both the delta and omicron variants) any place they travel without a mask or by gathering in a crowd. … Unvaccinated adults are particularly vulnerable to exposure of the COVID-19 virus when gathering indoors without a mask and participating in ‘high-exposure’ activities, such as eating meals.”
Q: Is it safe for vaccinated Iowans to travel and gather with families?
Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer, UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids: “The vaccine does protect against acquiring COVID-19 (by) reducing the risk of hospitalization and death. I would recommend masking and social distancing when possible while traveling.”
Dr. Russel Adams, UnityPoint Health Allen Hospital in Waterloo: “Travel during these times is not 100 percent safe, but Iowans who are fully vaccinated coupled with having the booster injection if appropriate have less risk with air travel. Masking and social distancing when possible coupled with hand hygiene remain important, however.”
Q: Is it safe for vaccinated Iowans to gather with unvaccinated individuals?
Dr. Jeremy Granger, medical director at UnityPoint Clinic in Sioux City: “Those who have been fully vaccinated, and received the booster if appropriate, definitely have an added layer of protection against COVID-19 this holiday season. The safest possible scenario would be that every person attending the family gathering is also vaccinated, and we should still consider keeping the gatherings on the smaller side this year. If members of the family are still unvaccinated, you may want to consider a virtual gathering.”
Dr. Timothy Horrigan, MercyOne Waverly Family Medicine: “Breakthrough infections are always a possibility for vaccinated adults. These infections can include all the usual symptoms of fever, cough and body aches, which can result in time off work or time away from family.”
Q: Should Iowans get a COVID-19 test before attending a gathering?
Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer, UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids: “Testing provides some reassurance. However, there are false negatives, so social distancing and masking and having good air movement is probably more efficacious in reducing transmission.”
Dr. Jeff Brock, MercyOne Infection Prevention in Des Moines: “Those who are vaccinated do not need to test before gathering with family members unless they have had a recent close exposure to someone diagnosed with COVID-19, have any symptoms of infection, or just want to test to reduce the risk of exposing someone at high risk who has a weakened immune system. Testing is advisable for unvaccinated individuals before gatherings.”
Q: What other messaging do you have for Iowans this holiday season?
Dr. Russel Adams, UnityPoint Health Allen Hospital in Waterloo: “Fully vaccinated with booster individuals still have risk of travel — however the risk is less, but it remains important to wear a mask, social distance and hand wash frequently. Avoidance of exposure to individuals that are not vaccinated is very important. The safest plan is to not travel, but of course this option is difficult, especially during holidays and for the emotional and spiritual well-being.”
Dr. Jeff Brock, MercyOne Infection Prevention in Des Moines: “The omicron variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. and it is spreading rapidly. While we still have a lot to learn about this new variant, we can help reduce transmission and slow this virus down through vaccination. Getting fully vaccinated, including the COVID-19 booster dose for those who are eligible, can help reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill.”
Dr. Jeremy Granger, medical director at UnityPoint Clinic in Sioux City: “We recognize that it’s been a long 20 months and people are anxious to gather in person with their friends and families. It’s extremely important at this time to remind the public that COVID-19 is still present in our communities, and that being fully vaccinated is your safest and most effective line of defense against this virus.”
Sarah Ekstrand, spokeswoman, Iowa Department of Public Health: “Getting vaccinated is the best thing Iowans can do to protect themselves and their families from the risk of severe illness, hospitalization or death from a COVID-19 infection. Any Iowan who has questions about the vaccine should discuss them with their health care provider. Iowans should stay home if they are sick and seek testing if they have symptoms or are exposed to a COVID positive individual.”