CORONAVIRUS

What's causing the recent increase in coronavirus cases in Johnson County?

A National Guard member holds up a sign as cars enter at the Test Iowa coronavirus testing site at the Kirkwood Communit
A National Guard member holds up a sign as cars enter at the Test Iowa coronavirus testing site at the Kirkwood Community College Continuing Education Training Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 28, 2020. Those wishing to be tested are required to show a QR code in order to enter. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — After several weeks of a steady downward trend, Johnson County has seen a swift uptick in residents testing positive for the novel coronavirus this past week.

Public health and local health care officials say the spikes in these cases have been identified among a younger demographic and most likely are tied to the loosening of certain pandemic-related mitigation efforts, including the reopening of bars and restaurants.

Starting the week of June 14, Johnson County began seeing double-digit increases in COVID-19 cases. By Sunday, June 20, the county saw the highest single-day increase since mid-April and the second-highest single-day total since Johnson County began reporting cases on March 8.

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics also recorded a “significant increase” in individuals being screened through its virtual clinic for influenza-like illness in the past week.

On Wednesday, 247 patients were screened for coronavirus-like symptoms, a number that had been trickling upward since the beginning of this month.

On June 1, 52 people were screened through the clinic.

But what is causing the number of positive cases suddenly to increase locally?

Countywide, the age range among this past increase in cases varies from four to 68 years old, with the average age of 24, said Sam Jarvis, community health manager at Johnson County Public Health.

UIHC providers are seeing new cases concentrated among those aged 18 to 24, said Dr. Jorge Salinas, UIHC infectious disease specialist. Many of them, he added, work in the service industry.

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It is possible, Salinas said, that the new cases could be related to the reopening of certain businesses in Iowa, especially bars and restaurants.

Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered bars, among other businesses, could reopen using certain precautions starting June 1. Bars and restaurants could open completely without restrictions on June 12.

Businesses reopening, coupled with the warmer weather, has led the county’s disease investigations teams to note that younger people are being more active and social at this time.

“As we saw those restrictions being lifted, thinking about your average incubation period and things, you know, I think we’re definitely seeing the result of that,” Jarvis told the Associated Press this week.

Several of the young adults associated with the new Johnson County cases have been gathering in establishments that increase their risk of acquiring COVID-19, Salinas said.

“Many of them, likely because of their age, tend to socialize and visit venues where transmission of COVID-19 may be more likely, such as indoor spaces that are crowded,” Salinas said. “So I see that pattern.”

Jarvis, however, told The Gazette that it’s “impossible to know the exact place or event with so many factors involved.”

“Is it due to not physically distancing? Is it due to not wearing a mask in public? Are persons not implementing those precautions while out in public? Is it due to restrictions being lifted? More than likely a combination of all the above,” Jarvis said.

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Story County — home to Iowa State University in Ames — also reported an increase among young adults aged 19 to 25.

The upward trend began two weeks ago and by Wednesday had reached 542 positive cases.

The director of Story County Public Health, Les White, told the Associated Press that it’s a group that is very social in settings where masks and social distancing is not occurring.

“We’ve been in contact with emergency management and public health in Story County, but mostly in terms of planning for contact tracing,” Jarvis said. “The cause (of the spike) could be the same, but we don’t have that level of understanding yet.”

The protests happening in Iowa City, and across the rest of the state, also are considered by officials as a factor. However, Salinas said there is less risk for transmission when individuals are outdoors.

“We’ve had protests throughout the United States and not all the places — even if they have large protests — have seen increases in cases,” Salinas said. “In New York City, for example, the numbers continue going down. So it’s not clear that protests have played a significant role in the increase of cases.”

The increased case count also could be associated with the increased testing capacity, some theorized. Testing is conducted on every patient before surgery and on every patient before he or she is admitted into Mercy Iowa City — meaning health care providers have been finding more cases, spokeswoman Margaret Reese said.

Whatever the reason, Mercy Iowa City officials “are paying close attention,” she said.

The spike in positive tests is leaving local officials worried. Hospital officials have not seen an increase in serious illness or hospitalizations, but if the spread is not contained, it’s only a matter of time before these individuals spread the virus to more vulnerable populations, Salinas said.

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Young adults aren’t immune to serious illness from COVID-19, Salinas added, noting there are cases of children and young adults dying as a result of the virus.

Hospital officials feel better prepared for a spike in COVID-19 cases than they did in March, but Salinas said it’s still important that residents maintain good public health practices to keep others around them healthy. That includes washing hands frequently, wearing a face covering when in public and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance.

“The name of the game is solidarity,” Salinas said on Facebook. “If we all work together as a pack, the chances of winning are much higher than if we take an individualist approach.”

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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