Linn County doctors warn of upcoming COVID surge as hospitalizations rise

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Linn County health officials are urging residents to get vaccinated and to practice mitigation measures to ease the burden on the local healthcare system, which has been seeing an increase in hospitalizations, as the Delta variant fuels an increase in COVID-19 cases.

“COVID cases have increased in the preceding two weeks at a pace that if this continues, it will trigger both hospitals to initiate contingencies to redirect resources to take care of COVID patients as we did last fall and even in the spring of 2020,” Dr. Dustin Arnold of UnityPoint Health said during a news conference on Tuesday.

Arnold added that redirecting resources will ensure everyone needing critical care will receive it, “but it will come at the expense of routine and preventative health care,” which the hospitals want to prevent.

Nearly all of Iowa’s counties — 91 counties including Linn — are experiencing a high level of community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The remaining eight counties are experiencing substantial transmission.

The CDC recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear face masks in indoor public settings in areas with high or substantial virus spread.

CDC county-tracker map for COVID-19, Aug. 25, 2021.

Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi said 83 percent of the county’s confirmed cases this month were the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. Delta was first confirmed in Iowa in early May.

Cedar Rapids hospitals are working under the presumption that all patients coming into the hospital have Delta. Dr. Tony Myers of Mercy Medical Center said he expects Linn County to continue to see an increase in cases for the next week and a half with a peak in early September if residents don’t practice mitigation measures.

“We do need the county’s help, the community’s help, in helping turn what’s going on right now,” Myers said.

UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids had 21 individuals hospitalized as of Tuesday. Mercy Medical Center had 33 individuals hospitalized, Myers said.

Earlier this summer, in June and July, there were one to four patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on a given day at Mercy. The hospital had gone back to “normal operation” during these months, Myers added.

“Compared to when we were really surging hard in November, we had two floors of the hospital that were dedicated to COVID, and unfortunately, we had to move our pediatric unit over the weekend and rededicate an entire floor to COVID this past weekend,” Myers said, adding that for a couple of weeks in November the hospital was taking care of 50 patients on a given day.

The challenges that hospitals are facing with the increase in hospitalizations is different than during the surge last fall. Myers said some healthcare workers at Mercy stepped away after last year, which decreased the hospital’s staff.

Another factor, Myers said, is that the hospital has been seeing increased hospitalizations for other issues not related to COVID-19, which puts another strain on staff since it’s happening at the same time as the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“We don’t have a problem with beds. We don’t have a problem with ventilators. We don’t have a problem with medication,” Myers listed off. “… Really, it comes down to the staffing and the pressure on the staff.”

While breakthrough infections are still rare, the hospitals are seeing an increase. About 17 percent of patients at UnityPoint are vaccinated, and 35 percent at Mercy are vaccinated.

“From January until June, 95 percent of our admitted patients were unvaccinated,” Myers said. “This changed dramatically over just a short period of time at Mercy. Over a period of a week and a half, we went from 15 percent of people admitted were fully vaccinated to 35 percent today.”

“Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no benefit in the vaccine. Obviously, the people that are getting admitted are for the most part less ill than they would have been, and by far a clear majority of our critically ill patients are still unvaccinated. But I want all the people that are vaccinated out there to realize they are still at significant risk, and so we need to tighten up with some mitigation.”

Both Arnold and Myers said they’ve seen previously vaccinated employees testing positive for the virus. Myers said it requires a “pretty intense exposure” for vaccinated people to get the virus, such as having a family member get sick or being at a prolonged indoor gathering.

All health officials on the call repeated the mitigation measures that they have been encouraging since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing and stay home when sick. Officials also urged residents to get vaccinated.

“Vaccination is key,” Arnold said. “Vaccines work. They’re safe. They prevent hospitalizations and deaths. And now with the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, it is approved for use in 16 years and older. There continues to be emergency authorization for 12 to 15.”

Slightly more than half of the county’s residents — 54 percent — are fully vaccinated and another 4 percent are partially vaccinated, according to LCPH data.

All three vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. are effective against all currently identified variants. The COVID-19 vaccine is free and individuals do not need health insurance to receive their shot.

Linn County residents can find walk-in vaccine clinics or information on how to make an appointment with a vaccine provider through the LCPH website.

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