CORONAVIRUS

Measuring all deaths in Iowa reveals COVID-19's bleak toll

Federal data shows huge spikes in November deaths

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to the media Nov. 12 during a COVID-19 news conference at the Iowa PBS studios in Johnston. (Ke
Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to the media Nov. 12 during a COVID-19 news conference at the Iowa PBS studios in Johnston. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES — Overall deaths in Iowa are on pace to increase this year by more than 10 percent over last year, an indicator of COVID-19’s deadly impact in the state.

And at the worst moment of the virus’ recent surge here, deaths during Thanksgiving week in Iowa spiked by nearly 62 percent over the same week a year ago, federal data shows.

The first death of the pandemic in Iowa was recorded March 24. Over the 10 months since, nearly 3,700 Iowans have died of COVID-19 or virus-related causes.

Public health and infectious disease experts use “excess deaths” — the number of additional deaths over a period of time compared with similar times in earlier years — as a key indicator of a pandemic’s impact.

As of Wednesday, deaths in Iowa in 2020 were pacing 12.1 percent higher than 2019, according to data recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Some are clearly directly COVID per death certificates, some are secondary to the impact of COVID on serious underlying conditions, some are the impact of people delaying and avoiding care to stay away from health care facilities,” said Dr. Louis Katz, the Scott County Health Department medical director and an infectious disease specialist.

Weekly comparisons of the data indicate when the virus has been most deadly this year. During earlier surges this year, deaths increased by as much as 30 percent over the same week a year ago. But the worst spike came in November, when the virus raged in Iowa.

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Over the course four weeks in November, deaths in Iowa increased over the same week a year ago by 38.9 percent, 44.6 percent, 52.5 percent and 61.7 percent, each of them new highs for the pandemic, according to federal data.

“I think this represents the impact of COVID-19 that was predicted consistently in the spring and summer,” Katz said. “With cooler weather, more indoor activity and crowding, and less than optimal adherence to public health recommendations — most especially regarding masking, physical and social distancing and travel avoidance — we first get a spike in cases, trailed reliably by hospitalization, trailed just as reliably by deaths.”

Iowa’s COVID-19 numbers mostly have been trending in a positive direction since that late-November surge. New cases and virus-related hospitalizations have decreased in the roughly one month since those numbers peaked.

Gov. Kim Reynolds joined public health and medical leaders in calling on Iowans to remain vigilant and safe through the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season to help prevent another deadly surge.

Experts recommend avoiding large family gatherings and continued basic mitigation efforts like hand-washing, social distancing, wearing face coverings in public, and remaining home when feeling sick.

“We can’t forget that the virus is still active in our communities,” Reynolds said earlier this week. “For now, these simple things continue to be our best defense against COVID-19. So as you gather with loved ones in the coming days, please celebrate responsibly. Be mindful of the people that you’re with and do your part so everyone has a happy holiday.”

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