CORONAVIRUS

Hospitalization spike in Iowa prompts concern for staff from health care leadership

Joint letter sent to lawmakers calls on Iowans to practice public health mitigation efforts

Medical assistant Shannon Jensen (right) carries a swab for a coronavirus test taken from a patient to her colleague Kat
Medical assistant Shannon Jensen (right) carries a swab for a coronavirus test taken from a patient to her colleague Katrina Rogers to be bagged and sealed at the Family Medicine Clinic of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City in April. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

State health care leaders continue to raise concerns about the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, warning the general public that the effort to address the increasing patient load is causing burnout for its staff and could have dire impacts on the welfare of the state’s health care system.

Various hospital leaders from across the state, along with the Iowa Hospital Association, sent a joint statement signed by nearly 200 health care workers to state legislators and other staff at hospitals across the state, officials announced in a virtual news conference Tuesday.

They did not call for any new policies or mitigation efforts to slow the spread of the virus, but instead asked lawmakers to raise the awareness among their constituents of the dire situation Iowa health care systems are facing as a result of the upward trend of COVID-19 cases.

“Our message is driven by health care data and guidance, not politics,” according to the statement from the Iowa Hospital Association’s physician leadership group and the Iowa Organization for Nursing Leadership.

This surge in new cases over the past month has driven a growing number of hospitalizations.

The number of admitted COVID-19 patients ticked up again on Tuesday after a five-day decline, reaching a total of 1,351. A record number of patients — 155 — were on ventilators, according to The Gazette analysis of state coronavirus data.

Personal protective gear and other supplies have been strained and many health care systems often had a limited number of intensive-care unit beds in recent weeks, officials said during the news conference.

In fact, demand became so high that only a few ICU beds were available at one stage in the past week throughout the entire Region 1, which includes Ames and Des Moines, said Dr. Tammy Chance, medical director of quality initiatives at Boone County Hospital

However, they said their greatest worry is for the state of their physicians and nurses.

“If these trends continue, physicians, nurses and support staff who have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic since March will suffer additional stress and risk infection, illness and death,” the joint statement read.

Health care leaders participating in the virtual news conference Tuesday said many hospital staff have been out because of COVID-19 related reasons, such as becoming infected with the virus or caring for family members who have fallen ill.

At the Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, more than 100 staff members were absent on Monday because of these reasons, said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael McCoy.

It’s not just the spike in COVID-19 adding stress to health care workers. Dr. Hijino Carreon, chief medical officer of MercyOne Des Moines, pointed out hospitals still are adding the needs of all other patients, including those having strokes, heart attacks and other medical traumas.

“Those things haven’t gone away, but have overlaid with COVID-19 and it has created an added burden to the health care system,” Carreon said.

Even moving experienced staff to areas of the hospital isn’t an ideal solution. Depending on the patient population, a nurse or other medical staff member can’t always meet the clinical demands, Carreon said.

For example, if a patient needs open heart surgery, Carreon said a hospital “can’t just take any nurse and put them in that setting.”

Hospitals across the region frequently have been coordinating with one another throughout this pandemic. As a part of that, larger hospitals have taken on patients in need of a higher level of care from smaller hospitals, while large hospitals have sent healthier patients to those smaller hospitals, said Jennifer Nutt, vice president for clinical services at the Iowa Hospital Association.

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Overall, health care leaders’ solution is a continued call for the same public health mitigation strategies officials have been sharing since March — wear a mask, use social distancing, avoid large gatherings and wash hands frequently.

“If we don’t as a community rally around supporting our health care systems and attempting to minimize the spread, we could be in a dire situation over the next several weeks,” Carreon said.

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

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