CORONAVIRUS

UI epidemiologist cautiously optimistic about Thanksgiving's effect on COVID-19 spread in Iowa

A sign is posted outside a virus screening checkpoint at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City in Ma
A sign is posted outside a virus screening checkpoint at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City in March. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Dr. Jorge Salinas is optimistic — more so than he has ever felt throughout the past several months as the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on.

As of early this week, Iowa is no longer facing a massive surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, what Salinas calls a promising trend for area hospitals as the state expects to see the first doses of an effective vaccine in the near future.

The infectious disease specialist with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics expects by the spring, with the help of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, the United Sates will no longer see the same kind of surges in new cases it has experienced during the past year.

By this summer — assuming there are enough doses and everyone is immunized — life could perhaps even return to normal, he said.

“What’s awesome is that we rarely are able to talk about the possibility of making a disease disappear with such an effective vaccine,” Salinas said. ”I think that is a possibility.”

But Iowans still are at risk for getting sick and dying, and hospitals still face the possibility they will be overwhelmed in the next year — even as the vaccine makes its way into the most at-risk populations.

That’s still especially true in the coming weeks when winter holidays may prompt some to gather with their families and loved ones for celebrations — something Salinas strongly recommends against.

“I am trying to be optimistic that Iowans will do the right thing,” he said.

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Despite the light at the end of the tunnel, Salinas said the state needs strong leadership on all levels to continue to urge Iowans to practice safety measures and lower the risk of more outbreaks.

“We need to remain vigilant,” Salinas said. “You don’t want to decrease your speed at the end of the marathon; you want to continue at the same pace.”

Many health care and public health experts urged the public to avoid traditional Thanksgiving celebrations, or else risk spreading the virus further — thus putting hospitals at risk for being overwhelmed. Even before the holiday took place last month, hospitals were already at a critical point, which Salinas said created an added pressure for health care officials.

But as of Tuesday, nearly two weeks past the holiday, Salinas said Iowa hasn’t seen the “tsunami” of COVID-19 patients in need of critical care that he and others feared.

New positive cases in Iowa had been trending downward heading into early December, according to state coronavirus data. However, Salinas noted that while Iowa has not seen the same level of new infectious as it was in early November, the number of new cases reported to hospital officials in recent weeks have seemed to have plateaued.

“It’s clear now almost 10 days after Thanksgiving that the decrease in the incidents of COVID-19 has stopped,” Salinas said. “That may mean it’s about to go up or that it will remain there.”

While the daily totals of new cases is not ideal, hospitals are no longer facing the critical situation they were about a month ago, when more than 1,500 Iowans were hospitalized at its peak.

Salinas attributes the lower-than-expected rate of post-Thanksgiving hospitalizations to a number of factors, particularly a “more coherent message and response” to the pandemic from state leadership, including Gov. Kim Reynolds’ narrow mask order announced Nov. 16.

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Salinas also noted that because Iowa had one of the highest rates of transmission nationwide, holiday travelers from other states may not have had a major impact.

Other Eastern Iowa physicians have noted similar contributing factors, including the fact that the high rate of cases over the past couple of months means that fewer people will be susceptible to falling ill a second time.

Wintertime poses an added risk for spreading the virus because many will be moving gatherings indoors. Since the novel coronavirus is airborne, it can easily travel in an indoor space if people are within 6 feet of an infected person due to a lack of ventilation.

Looking ahead to the holidays and the upcoming winter months, Salinas said hospitals’ surge capacity “is slightly better than it was in November.” He again noted there’s always a risk for another surge if Iowans relax safety measures.

“If I want to continue doing the right thing and if our leaders continue implementing some public health measures, we may be able to survive this winter without a large number of casualties,” he said.

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

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