CORONAVIRUS

Local officials plead with public to follow COVID-19 safety measures as cases rise

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to delay nonemergent surgeries 'as needed'

Heather Meador, clinical services supervisor at Linn County Public Health, discusses the importance of public health mea
Heather Meador, clinical services supervisor at Linn County Public Health, discusses the importance of public health measures to combat the alarming rate of new COVID-19 cases driving up hospitalizations during a news conference at the Cedar Rapids Public Library on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Michaela Ramm/The Gazette.)
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Local officials once again are warning the public that hospitals will be overwhelmed and Iowans will suffer health consequences unless individuals follow public health guidelines.

As several days of alarming numbers of new COVID-19 cases drive record-breaking rates of hospitalizations locally, officials at a news conference at the Cedar Rapids Public Library Friday called on the public to practice guidelines they’ve been touting since the pandemic began — wear a mask, use social distancing and avoid large gatherings.

With the recent spike in new cases and with the holidays drawing closer, local officials expressed a growing alarm that quarantine fatigue is driving residents to be less diligent in using public health measures — thus spreading the virus more than before.

“While COVID-19 may not make you seriously ill, there are people in our community who have been hospitalized and who have died due to COVID-19,” Heather Meador, clinical services supervisor at Linn County Public Health, said at the news conference.

“Our prevention message continues to be the same, which we have stressed for the past eight months. These messages are no less important today than they were eight months ago.”

Without these public health measures to slow the coronavirus, hospitals soon could be inundated.

“We can’t continue this rate of rise, otherwise we will be unable to sustain it and take care of patients,” said Dr. Tony Myers, Mercy Medical Center chief medical officer.

Friday’s news conference, which was hosted by Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart as well as officials from Linn County Public Health and both Cedar Rapids hospitals, was the first since May.

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Earlier in the pandemic, many municipalities throughout the state — including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — issued mandates for residents to wear masks while in public. Gov. Kim Reynolds pushed back, saying those local leaders do not have authority to issue these policies.

While the Cedar Rapids mandate was effective in encouraging better mask use throughout the city, Hart said he is not considering further steps that other state and local governments have done in other parts of the Midwest. The Chicago’s mayor, for example, implemented a “business curfew” last week, requiring businesses to close at 10 p.m. and ending liquor sales at 9 p.m., in efforts to impede viral transmission across the city.

Hart said he believes restrictions currently in place at city offices and on the city’s public transportation system are enough at the moment.

“We are doing all of those things to try to prevent not only city workers, but also people who are using transit or any of our city facilities from getting sick,” he said.

UIHC may delay surgeries to ‘buy some time’

As the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City becomes stressed from the record-breaking hospitalizations, the facility is making operational changes not seen since the beginning of the pandemic, in anticipation of an influx of patients.

Beginning Friday, and if there is an anticipated bed need, UIHC may reschedule select nonemergent surgeries and procedures that require recovery in a hospital setting, officials said.

“Unfortunately, as COVID-19 numbers in the state continue to rise, this is what we need to do,” UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said in an email to The Gazette. “We are committed to caring for all Iowans’ health care needs, but the only way we can continue to do so is if we get the pandemic under control, and that requires every citizen to take responsibility for following the safety guidelines.

“If we fail to control the pandemic, all hospitals will be vulnerable to being overwhelmed going into a traditionally busy winter season. We are making these changes to ‘buy some time’ for Iowans to follow safety guidelines and ‘flatten the curve’ before it is too late,” Gunasekaran said.

Decisions will be made on a daily basis, depending on bed capacity at UIHC and at other hospitals in the region.

The hospital’s emergency room and all outpatient clinics will remain open.

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Affected patients will be notified more than 24 hours in advance if they need to reschedule. Patients are encouraged to keep their appointments, as the majority of surgeries and procedures “will continue as scheduled,” according to officials

Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids has seen 32 patients admitted to the hospital due to COVID-19 in the past four days. Myers said the hospital has taken care of a little more than 300 people with the virus since March — meaning admissions in those past four days make up one in 10 of all infected patients in the past eight months.

“The level we’ve seen in the last four days, if it continues to rise, is an unsustainable level,” Myers said. “That really doesn’t have anything to do with space, negative pressure rooms, ventilators or supplies.

“There is a point where you don’t have enough critical care staffing capacity to take care of an ever increasing number.”

Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital, added it’s important patients do not delay necessary medical care if they need it. While hospitals are concerned about an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients, local hospitals still will have capacity to care for anyone who has an urgent medical need.

Contact tracers facing challenges to work

Contact tracers at Linn County Public Health, who are tasked with determining which residents may have been exposed to the virus, are struggling to keep up with the large amount of new cases each day, Meador, the clinical services supervisor, said.

Unlike earlier in the pandemic, contact tracers are facing regular lack of cooperation from residents. Meador said residents hang up on contact tracers, refuse to disclose their close contacts, lie to them and even “scream (at) them with vulgar language, including strong profanity.”

Meador appealed with the public to comply with contact tracers. Otherwise, the public health agency is “not able to protect the community,” she said.

“We cannot make someone comply (with contact tracers), we cannot make someone answer our questions. It’s voluntary,” Meador said.

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“We do try to reach out to every single person in Linn County that tested positive. We try to call them, we send them letters with information, but if they refuse to talk to us, there’s nothing we can do.”

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

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