COVID-19 cases rise in Iowa, metro hospitals wary of surge in hospitalizations

Coronavirus Impacting Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa – The United States is struggling with a fourth wave of the coronavirus, this time driven by the Delta variant. The strain is behind a surge of cases around the country, and right here in Iowa.

Updated numbers from the Iowa Department of Public Health show nearly 1,400 Iowans were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past week. An additional 12 deaths were also reported during that same time.

The CDC says Iowa’s positivity rate has climbed to 5.5-percent, and that hospitalizations are up by 17-percent. Hospitals around the country are seeing the same thing.

Metro hospitals aren’t seeing the surge yet, but two chief medical officers tell WHO 13 News it’s something they’re preparing for.

At the height of the pandemic, UnityPoint Health had 140 COVID patients. Currently, that number is in the single digits across its four hospitals, but doctors know how quickly that can change.

“It takes about two weeks after cases start to increase before we see the hospitalizations increase, so we’re watching that very carefully,” Dr. Tracy Ekhardt, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health Des Moines, said. “And knowing that we are already very tight and we’re getting calls from Missouri to transfer patients here because they have no beds left, and no ICU beds left in Missouri.”

That doesn’t mean beds are empty in Des Moines. Local hospitals have been busy caring for patients with illnesses typically seen in the winter months.

“On the pediatric side lots and lots of RSV and pneumonia, adult side as well respiratory illness plus all of our chronic illnesses that didn’t have as much care during our COVID pandemic,” Dr. Ekhardt explains.

If more COVID patients are added to the mix, another challenge across the board will be finding the people to care for them.

“Currently staffing for most hospitals in the metro for nursing, OR staff we are short of the staff,” Dr. Yogesh Shah, chief medical officer at Broadlawns Medical Center, said. “So that would be a worry in future if the COVID patients continue to increase.”

Doctors are saying the best defense against the Delta variant and surge in hospitalizations is the vaccine. With vaccination rates still lagging in the state, healthcare leaders are bracing themselves for what could be.

Reporter Calyn Thompson asks, “What’s the worst-case scenario?”

“We may find out,” Dr. Ekhardt said. “We do the best we can with what we have and work with our community. I’m in constant contact or in frequent contact with other medical directors and CMOs [chief medical officers] throughout the community trying to figure out how do we safely care for these patients.”

Doctors say just like the initial wave of the pandemic, it surges in different areas at different times. They say part of it now is due to vaccines.

The Iowa Department of Public Health says 65-percent of those 18 and older have received at least one shot. Doctors are worried about the counties with low vaccination rates where people are more vulnerable to severe illness.

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