You are the owner of this article.
Flood of COVID-19 patients strain Sioux City hospitals, with local hospitalization rate double U.S. average
alert featured

Flood of COVID-19 patients strain Sioux City hospitals, with local hospitalization rate double U.S. average

COVID-19 Dakota County Testing 3

Members of a Nebraska National Guard CERFP joint emergency response task force talk on April 14 before testing residents for novel coronavirus at the Dakota City Fire Station. With the fastest rate of growth of COVID-19 cases among U.S. cities, the number of patients with the virus admitted to one of Sioux City's two hospitals has surged in the last week, straining medical resources. 

SIOUX CITY -- As cases of the novel coronavirus surge in metro Sioux City, the rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 in Woodbury County has more than doubled the national average.

As of Friday, 116 county residents with the virus have been hospitalized in Sioux City since the pandemic began, at either MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center or UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's. That placed the cumulative hospitalization rate for the county of 103,107 at 112.5 per 100,000, compared to the national rate of 50.3 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Sixty-six county residents with virus-related illness were inpatients in one of the two hospitals as of Friday, according to data from the Siouxland District Health Department. Counting residents from other Iowa counties and neighboring states, the hospitals reported having 82 COVID-19 patients Friday.

The recent flood of sick patients has strained local medical resources.

As part of their surge plans, MercyOne and St. Luke's have opened intensive care units in other areas of the hospital and requested additional ventilators and personal protective equipment. To free up more ICU beds for COVID-19 patients, St. Luke's transferred some patients to other hospitals last week.

A health care provider familiar with MercyOne described the atmosphere in the downtown hospital as "intense."

"I don't really feel like there was a real great plan in place for us to be taking all of these patients," said the provider who spoke to The Journal under the condition of anonymity. "Once the (meat) plants were exposed to it, it just really blew up over here."


MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center is shown above in Sioux City. As of Friday, 116 Woodbury County residents with COVID-19 have been hospitalized in Sioux City since the pandemic began, at either MercyOne or UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's.

Led by Woodbury and the much smaller Dakota County, metro area COVID-19 cases passed 3,000 Friday, an infection rate of 18 residents per 1,000. That gave the metro area the dubious distinction of being the U.S. city with the nation's fastest virus growth rate.

Though state and county health officials have repeatedly refused to link the escalation to an outbreak at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, a Journal analysis shows the number of positive cases started to shoot up soon after some of the plant's 4,300 workers were tested at a mobile test site that opened on April 14 at the Dakota City Fire Station.

By April 30, nearly 700 workers had tested positive for the virus, a source familiar with the situation told The Journal.

Last Thursday, Tyson reopened its largest beef facility after idling production for six days to deep clean the plant and screen the remaining workers for the virus. On Friday, a few days after the testing finished, Dakota County reported a single-day record of 361 new positive tests, while Woodbury County confirmed 161 new cases.

Last week also marked the deadliest for the metro area since the pandemic began, with seven deaths reported between the two counties, including five alone on Thursday. 


Tyler Brock, deputy director of Siouxland District Health Department, cited reports of some local residents being reluctant to seek care from a primary provider after they started feeling ill.

"Hospitals have told us, over the last couple of weeks, that people are showing up to the hospital too sick," Brock said Friday at a news conference. "They should have been here earlier ... people are waiting too long to seek medical care, that people are actually in worse shape than they think they are.

"And even as we talk about isolation and not leaving your homes with these folks, we want to emphasize that people do need to go outside their homes if they have to seek medical care."

As recently as April 21, Woodbury County reported less than a half dozen residents hospitalized for the virus. Cumulative hospitalizations of county residents more than doubled on April 27 and then began to steadily climb to more than 110 by May 7. It's not certain how many Dakota County residents have been hospitalized in Sioux City, because the Dakota County Health Department has said it cannot provide those numbers.

A MercyOne spokeswoman said the hospital's surge plan is working because it has not needed to transfer or turn away patients. 

"The MercyOne Siouxland surge plan allows us to flex our hospital to 150% of normal capacity," spokeswoman Marcy Peterson said. "That will take us to approximately 300 beds, with a good portion of that being ICU capable."

In an internal memo to medical staff providers issued Wednesday, Larry Volz, MercyOne's chief medical officer, said the hospital's leadership team "feels confident" that MercyOne is prepared to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients. 

"We continue to implement our surge plan and are currently experiencing a large number of COVID-19 infected patients on the inpatient units as well as the ICU," Volz said in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Journal.

Prior to the pandemic, St. Luke's had an 18-bed ICU with an average daily census of approximately 10-12 patients, said hospital spokeswoman Leah McInerney. Currently, the hospital's ICU is a 30-bed unit dedicated entirely to COVID-19 patients. Six more non-COVID-19 ICU beds have been set up in another area of the hospital.

UnityPoint Health St. Luke's

The main hospital campus of UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's is shown March 9 in Sioux City. Currently, the hospital's ICU is a 30-bed unit dedicated entirely to COVID-19 patients. Six more non-COVID-19 ICU beds have been set up in another area of the hospital.

The next phase of the plan is to increase the number of ICU beds to 44, she said. On Wednesday, St. Luke's said it would transfer four patients so that it could increase the number of COVID-19 ICU beds.

In his memo to providers, Volz said MercyOne's ICU has been converted into a COVID-19 ICU and all non-COVID-19 critically ill patients are being taken care of in the post-anesthesia care unit until the hospital starts to see a reduction in the surge numbers.

"Caring for critically ill patients in the PACU may affect our ability to recover surgical patients there," Volz said. "Due to this limitation, patients may need to be recovered in the OR and transferred to same day surgery or their hospital room directly from the OR. Given this limitation of critical care beds, we will be carefully evaluating all hospital to hospital transfers that have a high likelihood of requiring ICU care until further notice."

According to the memo, the hospital has two inpatient isolation units open in pediatrics and oncology accommodating "lower risk patients" who have COVID-19. With the continued growth of its census, Volz wrote that a third COVID-19 unit was opened in endoscopy. The hospital has not needed to open its COVID-19 emergency room, but is "prepared to do so if required," he said.

Samaritan Hospital
Hospital at 28th and Jennings streets
St. Joseph Hospital
St. Joseph's
St. John's Hospital

The health care provider who spoke to The Journal said MercyOne's ICU staff seem to have sufficient access to personal protective equipment, or PPE, at this stage, but those working in the emergency department, for example, do not. The source said N95 masks are being worn by hospital employees for multiple shifts, sometimes until the masks break. PPE donations from the community are appreciated, the provider said.

"I know they were really hurting for personal protective equipment for other areas of the hospital," the provider said.

Volz said in the memo that the ICU was converted into a COVID-19 ICU in order to preserve PPE. 

"In addition, we are working continuously with the support of our parent organizations to acquire the myriad of additional needed supplies including additional ventilators," he said. 

Wearing hot PPE for hours on end is exhausting and the gear makes it difficult for staff to hear one another, the health care provider who spoke to The Journal said. Some staff members are working up to 20 hours straight, according to the provider. 

"I know everybody pretty much leaves with marks on their faces from wearing the masks all shift or multiple shifts in a row," the provider said.

The provider urged Siouxlanders to stay at home as much as possible to stop the spread of the virus.

"Granted, we probably don't have as many patients as they did, say out east, or even Omaha, but there are only two hospitals here and limited resources," the provider said.

Dakota County Tyson worker dies of COVID-19 and Woodbury County records additional death
Orange City braces for possibility of tourists even with tulip festival canceled
Iowa casinos roll snake eyes in April

Concerned about COVID-19?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Officials reported an additional 48 positive cases of COVID-19, increasing Woodbury County's total to 1,674. The Siouxland District Health Department is currently unable to report the number of people who have recovered from the virus.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News