‘There is a false sense of security:’ Linn County officials urge mask-wearing to slow community spread

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

“Unfortunately, we are back to report some disheartening news about the virus spread in our community, particularly over the last 14 days,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said as he began Wednesday’s Linn County Public Health press conference.

The last LCPH press conference was more than a month ago on May 20. Through the end of May to early June, new cases of the virus were starting to decrease by week. But that is no longer what officials are reporting.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Linn County have increased significantly over the last two weeks, and with Fourth of July coming up, county officials are concerned about cases continuing to surge. The three speakers on Wednesday, all of whom were wearing masks, urged residents to mask up and practice social distancing.

During the week of June 7, there were 35 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Linn County. The following week starting on June 14 had 50 new cases. The week of June 21 saw 101 new cases of the virus.

“COVID-19 is still here, and it’s still spreading within our community,” LCPH Clinical Services Supervisor Heather Meador said. “The increase in cases that have been reported are linked to community spread, which means the person cannot identify where exposure occurred. We are seeing an increase in cases among people aged 18 to 25.”

As of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, LCPH was reporting 1,230 total cases of the virus and 82 deaths. A total of 1,027 people have recovered. More than half of the confirmed cases are due to community spread.

When social gatherings were more restricted, Meador said most Linn County cases were among older adults. Since reopening, cases have increased in part because young adults are gathering, not following social distancing and not wearing a facial covering.

“We know many young adults are resuming activities that lead to community spread of COVID-19, such as visiting crowded bars, attending parties, backyard gatherings and planning pub crawls and other large downtown events,” Meador said. “… Since reopening, there is a false sense of security that life can go back to normal, however, we are still in a pandemic and life is not back to the way it was before COVID-19.”

Due to the increase in confirmed cases and community spread, Meador said all residents are recommended to maintain a distance of six feet between themselves and others, wear a facial covering, wash their hands, cover their coughs and sneezes, and stay home if sick. As cases increase, Meador said LCPH has been able to keep up with contact tracing and follow up with all individuals.

“What is being asked of you today is the most minimal and least invasive of sacrifices — to wear a mask or face shield when you are in public, at work or in close proximity to someone else,” Rogers said. “By doing this and practicing social distancing, we can begin to slow the spread down, but this will take all of us. … This doesn’t work if only some people take this advice seriously.”

“We all want to get back to normal, but for now, normal is following the guidance of our health professionals,” Rogers added.

A modeling tool created by University of Iowa faculty and graduate students shows that the number of cases of COVID-19 and deaths could decrease by thousands in the next few months if Iowans were required to wear personal protective equipment in public.

The decision to require Iowans to wear masks in public is up to Gov. Kim Reynolds. Linn County and other local city or county governments don’t have the authority to require their residents to wear masks. Reynolds can delegate the ability for cities and counties to mandate wearing masks, but she has indicated that she wants to leave it up to individual Iowans to choose for themselves.

“As an elected official, someone who has to oversee the health and well-being of both an organization and the citizens you represent, you wish you had every tool at your disposal,” Rogers said about the inability for local governments to mandate masks. “There are other states whose cases are declining because they took more extreme measures than the state of Iowa has.”

COVID-19 Press Conference, July 1st 2020 3:30

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Posted by Linn County Public Health on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Dr. Tony Myers of Mercy Medical Center gave an update on what he’s seeing at the hospital. Myers said he still communicates with Dr. Dustin Arnold of UnityPoint Health every day, and the two hospitals are seeing similar trends.

The worst hospital surge occurred at the end of April, Myers said. Mercy was averaging between eight to 14 critically ill patients with COVID-19 a day. It lasted about a month.

At the end of May that number went down to four patients a day, and in the last couple of weeks, it has decreased to two critically ill patients a day.

“The hospitals right now are both in similar situations as far as hospitalized patients, and we certainly have a lot of capacity,” Myers said. “In fact, both hospitals decreased some of their ICU capacity that they had built because we basically overshot by about three times as much as we needed, which was a good thing. While we decreased capacity, we still have double of what we normally have. That would easily take care of a similar surge that we saw in April.”

Even though the hospitals are in a good position, Myers offered a reminder that there is typically a lag between what happens in the community and what happens in the hospitals.

“Once there is a surge in the community — and we’ve seen this across the country — there’s two to four weeks before we start to see an impact on the hospitalizations,” Myers said.

Like the other speakers, Myers concluded his remarks by urging residents to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

“One of the things that’s incredibly clear is what we have done or what everybody has been doing to different extents across the world with hand-washing and social distancing and masking works,” Myers said. “It’s not a question of whether it works or not — it works.”

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