CORONAVIRUS

Iowa hospitals will be overrun by surge in new cases, says UIHC epidemiologist

Local expert calls for change in public behavior, saying holidays could be 'very problematic'

Medical assistant Shannon Jensen (right) carries a swab for a coronavirus test taken from a patient in their car back to
Medical assistant Shannon Jensen (right) carries a swab for a coronavirus test taken from a patient in their car back 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 on Monday, April 20, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Without a change in behavior and more emphasis on mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Iowans are “going to continue to suffer the consequences,” according to an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The situation in Iowa is critical after a spike in viral transmissions has driven record-breaking number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide, said Dr. Jorge Salinas, a leading infection control specialist at UIHC.

As of Thursday morning, 605 patients infected with the novel coronavirus were in hospitals across the state, including 135 in intensive care units and 56 on ventilators. That’s the highest rate of patients ever seen throughout the pandemic in Iowa.

And as a result, the state’s hospitals will be overrun with sick patients “very soon,” Salinas said.

“The trends are very problematic, it’s very worrisome,” he said in a Facebook Live video Thursday. “It’s very likely hospitals will be overwhelmed pretty soon by this wave of cases in Iowa.”

Other local hospital officials have also expressed concern that their systems could be overwhelmed if the upward momentum of new infections continues at its current pace — despite reassurances from Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this month that health care systems are strong enough to handle the surge. The last time Reynolds held a public news conference was Oct. 7.

Both Cedar Rapids hospitals have reported an unusually large number of admissions over the past few days, prompting a new sense of urgency as staff grapple with patient demands.

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“As far as space and supplies, we are fine. The concern is our staff and endurance it takes to continue caring for all of these patients,” Dr. Dustin Arnold, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital chief medical officer said in an interview with The Gazette.

However, Cedar Rapids health care officials emphasized that hospitals are still equipped to handle other patient care.

“We are safe,” Dr. Tony Myers, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, told The Gazette. “We ran into problem early on in the pandemic that people were avoiding necessary care, and we do not want that to happen again. People were having heart attacks and strokes at home.”

These concerns are intensifying as the holidays draw closer, when Iowans will be traveling to see their loved ones, potentially gathering in large groups and transmitting the virus to one another.

“The situation in Iowa is critical,” Salinas said. “We have to change the way we’re doing things, otherwise we’re going to continue to suffer the consequences.”

Salinas attributed the sharp increase in new cases to failures to practice common sense public health measures, including wearing masks, socially distancing and avoiding large gatherings. With winter around the corner, more people will be gathering in indoor spaces, which will substantially increase the risk of spread.

He acknowledge the fatigue some feel about remaining in quarantine for the past seven months as another challenge, but noted that returning to everyday life too soon could have dire impacts.

“We’re going to lose our grandparents, our parents,” Salinas said. “I’m not being fatalistic, it’s a reality.”

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“I remain hopeful that Iowans will wake up,” he continued. “This is not a political issue. Vote for whoever you want to vote for, it doesn’t matter, but implement these simple, science-based recommendations and your life will be better. Your family will remain complete.”

What Iowans do now will make a difference as Thanksgiving approaches, officials say. If enough people wear masks, socially distance and help reduce the chance of spread over the next few weeks, the risk of major outbreaks occurring as a result of holiday gatherings will be significantly reduced.

But if COVID-19 spread looks the same at the end of next month, Myers said he would recommend high-risk patients avoid gathering with others for the holiday.

“We need the community to have a re-emphasis on behaviors we all know work,” Myers said. “We really need the people to refocus on that.”

Unlike early in the pandemic, community spread of the virus has reached rural areas and other less densely populated parts of the state, Salinas said.

Other parts of the Midwest are also seeing an alarming spikes in hospitalization rates, including Indiana and Wisconsin. On Wednesday, Kansas reported the highest rate of ICU hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

“Unfortunately, it’s affecting our neighboring states, so they may not be able to help us because we’re all going to be in the same position,” Salinas said.

Salinas said its safe for people to gather in small groups of less than 10 people while socially distancing and wearing a mask. As long as people maintain a small “bubble” of interactions, their risk of transmission is much lower.

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By doing so, Salinas said the situation in Iowa could be much different by Thanksgiving. But without following proper public health guidelines, “thanksgiving is going to be very, very problematic.”

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

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