Dr. James Bell puts on the rest of his personal protective equipment in the ante room before entering the rooms of COVID-19 patients in the intensive-care unit at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids in December. (The Gazette)
Unless more Linn County residents practice safety mitigation strategies, local hospitals will need to take steps not seen since this past fall to preserve bed capacity for the anticipated surge in new COVID-19 cases, officials say.
The highly contagious delta variant of the novel coronavirus has caused a sudden surge in infections in Linn County over the past few weeks, causing a spike in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations even among fully vaccinated residents.
Officials with Cedar Rapids hospitals and Linn County Public Health are urging all eligible residents to get vaccinated. They also encouraged everyone — even those who are fully vaccinated — to wear masks in indoor public settings and avoid crowded gatherings, among other mitigation strategies.
“COVID-19 cases have increased in the preceding two weeks at a pace that, if it continues, it will trigger both hospitals to initiate contingencies to redirect resources to take care of COVID-19 patients as we did last fall and in the spring of 2020,” Dr. Dustin Arnold, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital chief medical officer, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday.
These contingencies include delaying routine and preventive care, such as nonemergent surgeries. Arnold said individuals who need critical care still would be able to receive it.
“We want to prevent that scenario,” Arnold said.
Hospital admissions, including breakthrough cases, rising quickly
COVID-19 cases has “increased significantly” in the past five weeks, Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi said. Nine Linn County residents have died since Aug. 1, he added.
Dwivedi said 83 percent of all reported cases in the county over past month are caused by the delta variant, which was first identified in the state in May. Linn County — along with 90 other counties statewide — were reporting a high level of community transmission earlier this week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mercy Medical Center recorded 33 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Myers said. By comparison, the hospital only saw between one to four patients a day throughout June and July.
St. Luke’s, which had 21 COVID-19 admissions as of Tuesday morning, reported a similar trend.
During the peak this past November, both Cedar Rapids were reporting at least 50 COVID-19 patient admissions.
The majority of hospitalized patients continues to be unvaccinated individuals. But officials have seen a number of breakthrough cases among vaccinated patients. As of Friday, Arnold said 17 percent of COVID-19 patients were fully vaccinated.
But that situation is changing quickly, Myers said. Vaccinated patients admitted for COVID-19 at Mercy Medical rose from 15 percent to 35 percent over a period of a week and a half.
“By far, the clear majority of our critically ill patients are still unvaccinated, but I want people that are vaccinated to realize that they are still at significant risk,” Myers said.
Hospitals also are seeing a number of their fully vaccinated staff test positive for the virus in recent weeks following “intense exposure” to the virus, Myers said. That includes prolonged indoor gatherings with multiple people without masks or social distancing.
Local hospitals have an adequate bed capacity and enough supplies of personal protective gear, ventilators and other needed supplies to care for patients, but maintaining staff capacity remains a major concern for hospital officials.
Vaccines and a layered approach
State coronavirus data shows case counts as well as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have been on the rise across Iowa. Local officials’ pleas come this week as K-12 school districts and colleges resume in-person learning, and following large public events that included the Iowa State Fair.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full authorization to the vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, which some experts say could pave the way for an increased vaccinated rate nationwide.
However, it’s unclear to local officials whether it will move the needle in Linn County. Based on the latest state coronavirus data, about 54 percent of the county population is fully vaccinated.
“We don’t know how much that will help us with regard to (vaccine) hesitancy, but at least this provides another assurance to our neighbors that its really safe and effective,” Dwivedi said.
In addition to getting the vaccine, it’s important residents take a layered approach moving forward, said Heather Meador, clinical services supervisor at Linn County Public Health.
“It’s not the vaccine all by itself, it’s that layered approach,” Meador said. “We did this before. As a community coming together to do these layered approaches and working together, we were able to get through last November.”
As part of that layered approach, the most important step individuals can take is to get vaccinated if they are eligible, Meador said.
All county residents should wear masks indoors and in other crowded public settings. Individuals also should maintain social distancing when possible, wash hands frequently and stay home when they are sick.
It’s important people get tested for COVID-19 if they are experiencing symptoms, Meador said. Those who test positive should follow isolation guidelines and those who are exposed should isolate, even if they are fully vaccinated.
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