“I’m proud of where our numbers are at,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said regarding COVID-19 during a photo-op with two turkeys at the governor’s mansion on Tuesday, “and we’re going to continue to make vaccines available and encourage people to get them if they want to.”
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health’s latest data, 53.5 percent of Iowans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That is an increase of one percentage point from the total IDPH reported in its final update in October.
More than 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state during the previous seven days, IDPH said in its weekly update on Wednesday. The number of Iowans hospitalized with the virus grew as well, with IDPH reporting 623 patients, the highest number since its Oct. 6 update.
The current strain on hospitals is the reason IDPH has given for its latest reduction in the amount of COVID-19 information it provides to the public. As the Dubuque Telegraph Herald first reported, IDPH no longer provides the number of hospitalized patients by county of residence, which the Telegraph Herald called “critical public health data that could help people make informed decisions about getting vaccinated, wearing masks and social distancing.”
The department did not announce it was eliminating the data prior to doing so.
“In an effort to reduce hospital reporting burden and reduce Iowa Department of Public Health staff workloads, coupled with the limited value of the data for monitoring disease trends, IDPH is no longer providing weekly reports of hospitalizations by county,” IDPH explained in a statement.
IDPH has not had a medical director or state epidemiologist since last month, and despite the pandemic, it has not had a full-time director since July 2020. During a news conference on Nov. 3, Reynolds was asked about what was being done to fill the medical director vacancy, and replied, “I know that the job has been posted, I don’t know how many have applied.” She suggested acting IDPH Director Kelly Garcia would be the person to ask.
The governor has not said anything this year about appointing a full-time IDPH director. Garcia already had a full-time position as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services when she received her acting appointment at IDPH 15 months ago.
At her turkey photo-op on Tuesday, Reynolds emphasized the positive.
“When you take a look at where we were last year, we were at almost 1,500,” the governor said, referencing hospitalizations.
At this time last year, Iowa was experiencing the peak of its worst surge of COVID-19 cases, and vaccines were not yet available.
The governor pointed to what she considers another bright spot.
“We have a good number of people who have had COVID that have natural immunity, and that’s part of the equation also,” she said. “It’s something that they don’t like to talk about, but it is part of the equation.”
The governor did not explain who “they” are. The concept of natural immunity, however, has become a focus of GOP messaging against federal vaccine mandates as of late. Republican lawmakers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have touted natural immunity — COVID-19 antibodies built up in the body during a previous infection by the virus — as an alternative to vaccination. Infectious disease experts have cautioned against this premise.
“Infection with this virus, if you survive, you do have some level of protection against getting infected in the future and particularly against getting serious infection in the future,” Dr. David Dowdy of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Associated Press. “It’s important to note though that even those who have been infected in the past get additional protection from being vaccinated.”
Natural immunity varies widely depending on the person, experts note, and may not be as effective against COVID variants as vaccine-generated antibodies. Through vaccination, COVID survivors can achieve what’s called hybrid immunity, boosting their immune system’s ability to fight off reinfection and, importantly, variants.
IDPH reported another 10,643 Iowans had tested positive for the virus in this week’s update, a jump from the 9,132 new cases in its previous update. The department also disclosed another 86 deaths, increasing Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll to 7,354.
“We’ve been through a rough couple of years and so I love that life is getting back to normal and people can gather with their families safely and responsibly and really count their blessings,” Reynolds said Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”