Johnson County Public Health suspended its routine case investigation and contact tracing for newly reported cases of COVID-19 because the ongoing surge in virus spread has overwhelmed its ability to conduct those investigations and tracing in an effective manner.
“During the past week, there has been a 250% increase in cases from the previous week,” the department said in a statement. “The total amount of cases in the past week reached an all-time high of almost 1,400 positive individuals. Due to this dramatic increase, JCPH no longer has the ability to contact everyone who tests positive to conduct case investigations and contact tracing. JCPH will continue to monitor COVID-19 cases in high-risk groups and coordinate with organizations who experience a rise in cases, evaluate capacity, and keep the public informed of changes in our COVID-19 response.”
Linn County Public Health discontinued its routine contact tracing on Dec. 31 for the same reason. The Iowa Department of Public Health ended routine contact tracing in August, not because of the number of new cases, which were much lower then than they are now, but as part of a policy decision to deprioritize tracking COVID-19 cases and using the same standards it uses for tracking outbreaks of the flu.
Speaking at the Johnson County Board of Supervisors work session on Wednesday morning, JCPH Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis explained that resources that had been used in contact tracing are being redirected.
“We are shifting to more of an education approach, so we can get the information out to folks as quickly as possible,” he said.
There will be an increased emphasis on informing the public about the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted, the proper use of masks and other mitigation efforts.
Jarvis’s voice was heavy with emotion as he addressed the supervisors, and he had to pause several times.
“I do want to note that it was a hard decision to [end contact tracing], because there is a desire to keep going,” he said. “But I think overall, we know that we’ve bought time. Since the beginning, and as vaccines have been provided to the majority of the public, we bought everyone time to get the best protection possible.”
Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass praised the work Jarvis and JCPH are doing, but added that while people in Iowa City are taking pandemic precautions seriously, many in the rest of the county aren’t.
“When I go to the grocery store, I am the only one masked,” the supervisor, who lives in North Liberty, said. “And people do look at me funny.”
Green-Douglass said that outside of Iowa City, most of the Johnson County residents she speaks to who are concerned about COVID-19 are parents worried about keeping their children safe at school.
“Other than that, I think there’s a very cavalier attitude, an attitude that it’s over and that things are not as dire as they actually are,” she said.
The impact COVID-19 is having in Johnson County was evident inside the supervisors’ meeting room, as only three of the five supervisors were present on Wednesday morning. Rod Sullivan, the longest-service supervisor, and Jon Green, the newest member of the board, participated in the meeting via Zoom.
Both supervisors were at home after contracting the virus, even though both are vaccinated, boosted, wear masks properly and practice other mitigation measures. The supervisors were likely infected by the Omicron variant, which the CDC said on Tuesday has become the dominant strain of the virus in Iowa and other Midwestern states.
Speaking after Jarvis finished his presentation, Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter said, “There are people in government, particularly in the executive branch of state and national government, who are going to pay a price in terms of history for what they’ve done during this pandemic to literally, vigorously, undermine public health.”
Painter didn’t use any names, but there can be no doubt Gov. Kim Reynolds was one of the people she had in mind.
Appearing at a press forum in Des Moines on Tuesday, Reynolds was asked by journalist Laura Belin if she would “encourage Iowans to wear masks in indoor public spaces on a voluntary basis.”
“Absolutely, if you want to wear a mask, you wear a mask,” the governor replied.
Pressed on whether she actually encourages Iowans to wear masks, Reynolds gave her standard reply.
“I’ve said all along, I’m going to put my trust in Iowans to do the right thing. They’ve done the right thing. I’m proud of them. We’ve protected civil liberties. We’ve kept our economy open. We’ve kept the food supply chain open. And we’re better off because of it.”
In its weekly update on Wednesday, IDPH reported 20,075 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Iowa over the previous seven days. That is an amount not seen since the height of the surge in November 2020, before the introduction of vaccines, and a 79 percent increase over the 11,234 new cases IDPH reported in its final weekly update for December.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients increased from 711 last week to 792 in Wednesday’s update. IDPH said 75.9 percent of those hospitalized with the virus are not fully vaccinated.
Iowa has also passed another grim milestone, according to the department, with more than 8,000 Iowans having now died from COVID-19.
In its latest update, IDPH disclosed another 161 deaths from the virus, pushing Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll to 8,019.