CORONAVIRUS

Did derecho result in more coronavirus cases in Eastern Iowa?

Local public health officials say it's impossible to tell

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the novel coronavirus
This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the novel coronavirus. (CDC via AP)

Many Eastern Iowa residents still are grappling with the aftershocks of the derecho, which resulted in $4 billion in damages statewide as the wind tore through Aug. 10.

And as individuals worked to repair damaged homes and clean up their properties over the past month, the pandemic — and measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — seemed to take a back seat for some.

With the extensive damage and with so many without power for weeks as a result, there wasn’t an emphasis on wearing masks and socially distancing while handing out food and taking up chain saws.

At the time, new cases of COVID-19 were beginning to spike, and the state had reached an infection rate per capita of more than 15 percent — one of the worst infection rates nationwide.

In the midst of this, local public health officials said it was possible neighbors could be spreading COVID-19 to one another.

What’s happened since

Did local counties see new cases of COVID-19 as a result of the derecho?

It’s hard to know for sure, according to local public health agencies.

The Iowa Department of Public Health does not have any data to suggest derecho cleanup “is directly related to COVID-19 cases,” department spokeswoman Amy McCoy said.

Public health officials in Linn and Johnson counties also say their contact tracers — those who monitor and track disease progression among residents — have not confirmed new cases of COVID-19 that can be linked to storm response.

“Storm cleanup has not come up in conversation from disease investigations,” said Sam Jarvis, community health manager for Johnson County Public Health.

Most of the response took place outdoors, where transmission of the virus is less likely to happen, McCoy noted.

“Still, we remind all Iowans, especially where community spread is high, to social distance whenever possible, wear a mask when it’s not, to practice good hand hygiene, and to stay home if they are sick,” McCoy wrote in an email.

But many people who test positive for COVID-19 don’t know how they were infected. Iowa has been experiencing community spread — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says occurs when people have been infected with the virus but aren’t sure how they were exposed — of COVID-19 for several months.

“COVID-19 is in our community and likely exposures are communitywide,” said Tricia Kitzmann, community health division manager at Linn County Public Health.

Because of this, pinpointing where a resident contracted COVID-19 “is very difficult,” she said.

Contact tracers are able to identify where a person contracted the virus if it’s linked to a specific event or place, and if that person is able to identify close contact with others.

That’s why public health officials are able to link cases from one person to the next much easier in long-term care facilities, where residents are in close contact with one another and visitors still are restricted from entering.

Contact tracers also are more likely to link cases in schools and colleges, Kitzmann said.

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“Otherwise, it is nearly impossible to identify where the exposure occurred,” she said.

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

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