CORONAVIRUS

'Barely holding on by a thread;' Officials continue plea to wear masks, socially distance

Employers are untapped way to stop record-breaking spread of COVID-19

An unworn mask is left in the parking lot of the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Liz Mar
An unworn mask is left in the parking lot of the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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To control the unchecked spread of the novel coronavirus in the Corridor, local leaders say they need employers to further support good practices and for adults to model good behavior for their children and others.

Leaders from Johnson and Linn counties discussed the importance of wearing a mask and taking other public health precautions as Iowa heads into the winter season amid record-breaking COVID-19 numbers in various public events on Tuesday.

In a webinar hosted by Think Iowa City on Tuesday, panelists from across the Corridor emphasized the dire situation the state is facing, particularly as hospitals risk becoming overwhelmed.

“What we’re seeing is uncontrolled transmission, not just in Johnson County, but across the state. We have about 7,000 cases in total in Johnson County, and 1,000 of those were reported in November,” said Sam Jarvis, community health division manager for Johnson County Public Health. “It’s pretty concerning.”

A leading infection control specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Dr. Jorge Salinas, expressed a similar concern during a Facebook Live event Tuesday evening, stating the roughly 4,000 new cases reported daily across the state is “very problematic.”

“With this amount of transmission, the risk of bumping into someone with COVID-19 is too high, which is why you want to limit your social interactions,” Salinas said.

Leaders on the webinar said employers were an untapped resource to help mitigate transmission locally, and called on businesses and corporations to encourage good practices among employees. That includes discouraging large gatherings, encouraging mask wearing in the workplace and considering allowing employees to work from home.

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In addition to more mask wearing and social distancing, officials also encouraged the public to limit any contact with those outside their immediate household, even family members or close friends. Contract tracers are finding that the virus has spread among those small gatherings, not just large group settings, according to Jarvis.

That means individuals should avoid traditional Thanksgiving gatherings with friends and family this year, officials said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a wise move,” University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said. “ ... I anticipate the holiday season will be the most devastating part of the pandemic to some.”

Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Noreen Bush said the district is “barely holding on by a thread” as trends within the schools continue to mirror the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community. She said the district has 22 bus drivers out and more than 50 staff members who requested coronavirus-related paid leave Monday alone.

“We’re feeling stress on our system,” Bush said.

On Tuesday, the Cedar Rapids Community School District applied for a state waiver to move all schools to virtual instruction until Nov. 30.

That stress is also being felt at hospitals across the state. Salinas said the concern is that if too much pressure is placed on a hospital, than it can impact the long-term outcomes of all patients, including those infected with COVID-19 and those who are not.

The rate of positive cases in recent weeks has driven a higher number of COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state than ever before, leading to a “visceral fear” among staff at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Gunasekaran said.

“Could this time, the number (of cases) keep increasing and no one will care until it’s too late?” he said.

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Without more adherence to public health recommendations, leaders said there’s an increased chance that the activities and other events Iowans look forward to will not happen this year, including the upcoming Hawkeye women’s basketball season.

“There is some risk we may not be able to do that,” said Jan Jensen, associate head coach for the UI women’s basketball team.

Gunasekaran pointed to recent news about the success of a COVID-19 vaccine and the estimates that it will be available broadly in the spring as indication the world is in the “fourth quarter” of the pandemic.

“Iowa is not a case study in failure,” he said. “Every state has ups and downs, every state has had its peaks. The question is why do we have this out of control peak now? Why have we fought hard for three quarters but gave up in the fourth?”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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