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COVID-19 hospitalizations rise sharply in Sioux City, across Iowa

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Sioux City hospitals COVID-19

An employee at UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's, walks back to his desk behind a hand sanitizer station March 9 at the Sioux City hospital.  

DES MOINES — The pleas from hospital and public health officials across Iowa have been coming in clearly, and in unison.

All Iowans must do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 — which is spreading through the state like wildfire — or Iowa hospitals may soon become overrun by patients infected with the virus, and then Iowa’s health care workers may become overwhelmed by the surging patient load.

COVID-19 is tearing through Iowa at rates never before seen during the pandemic, which first hit here in late March. The two-week average for new deaths is at its highest point of the pandemic, and the two-week average of new cases has tripled in just the past two months.

On Wednesday morning, Woodbury County's 14-day COVID-19 positivity rate had climbed to 22 percent, while neighboring Plymouth and Ida counties had much higher rates of 28.9 percent and 28.5 percent. 

UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s noted that many in the Siouxland community are wearing masks while out in public and then letting their guard down while at private gatherings with family and friends. Local health care providers say this has become “a significant concern,” according to a statement to the Journal.

“We’re at a critical point in our community’s fight against COVID-19. It is going to take every one of us doing our part to get this virus under control. Please protect your family, your community, and your local health care workers by wearing a mask, washing your hands, staying home when you are sick, practicing social distancing and getting your flu shot,” the statement said.

Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott said he believes that some of the city's establishments are "not really adhering" to social distancing requirements aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"If the governor asks us to do a better job of enforcement, then I think we would probably do that, but at this time, it's kind of the state's obligation to do the enforcement at bars and other places," Scott said. "I don't know what role we actually have, because she's pretty much claimed she's the only one who has that power. She probably has to figure out a way to get that done."

On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds implemented new restrictions for large public gatherings, but didn't order a broader statewide mask mandate. 

Under Reynolds' latest public health disaster emergency proclamation, all those over age 2 must wear a mask at an indoor event exceeding 25 people or an outdoor event exceeding 100 people, except when eating and drinking.

Tracy Larson, MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center’s vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer, said she has seen the effectiveness of masking, limiting gatherings and social distancing in the community.

“Now is the time for increased vigilance in these areas. Wearing a mask is an opportunity to protect the people you love. We have and will always champion these simple efforts to reduce the spread of this very real and threatening illness, and we encourage everyone to do the same,” she said.

Both Sioux City hospitals say they have the resources necessary to meet the community’s medical needs, amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We continue to work closely with our community partners to ensure we have the necessary beds, equipment, staffing and PPE to safely care for our Siouxland community, whether it is COVID-19 or other illness or injury,” St. Luke’s said in the statement.

MercyOne also said it is working with its partners.

“MercyOne medical centers presently have the necessary resources to manage these increases. We continue to work closely with our public health partners to meet the needs of our community and have plans in place should there be a need for additional coronavirus care,” the statement said.

The two-week average of Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 is double its previous high point, set way back in mid-May. And the two-week average of new COVID-19 hospital admissions is more than triple its previous high point of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the state reported 4,425 new COVID-19 cases and 27 new COVID-19-related deaths recorded in the previous 24 hours, plus 1,135 patients hospitalized for the virus.

Tuesday evening, the state reported a new record of 230 new COVID admissions over the past 24 hours. That blew past the previous high mark of 181; the state had not seen as many as 100 new admissions in a 24-hour span until just more than two weeks ago.

The number and percentage of hospital beds statewide has been shrinking. Some hospitals have hit their capacity for COVID-19 patients, and others are warning that even if they still have beds available, they may not have enough healthy workers to cover those beds.

“My people, these health care workers throughout our state, they’re exceptional. And at this point they’re exhausted. They’re exhausted mentally. They’re exhausted physically. They’ve been battling this disease for eight grueling months,” Dr. David Williams, chief financial officer for UnityPoint Health, said late last week during a news conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Iowa Capitol. “And now’s the time, I ask for Iowa, this is the time as a state, as a community, you have to take care of my (health care) family. We’ve been spending eight months taking care of you, taking care of your family, taking care of your friends. My plea is that everybody watching today: take care of my family. It’s time to take care of the health care workers.”

Hospitals across the state are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

In the Quad-Cities, COVID-19 patients at UnityPoint Health-Trinity have doubled from 25 to 48, including 19 in intensive care, according to president and CEO Robert Erickson. Of those who have been hospitalized in the Trinity system, the death rate has been roughly 10%, Erickson said.

“In Rock Island, every COVID-19 bed was full,” Erickson said. “And everyone was on a ventilator.”

Genesis Health in the Quad-Cities had 105 COVID-19 patients Tuesday, and is planning for that number to increase to 150 or more, a spokesman said.

“We need all the help we can get from the public. We are trending in a challenging direction,” Genesis’ senior communications specialist Craig Cooper said.

Western Iowa hospitals have seen a steady increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since late October. On October 22, the Metro Area Health Care Coalition — a group of health systems in the Council Bluffs and Omaha area — reported 176 total COVID-19 patients, with 64 in intensive care. On Sunday, the most recent figure available, the COVID-19 hospitalizations had more than doubled to 365, with 107 patients in intensive care.

“The number of COVID-19 patients we are seeing in the community is at its highest point since the pandemic began,” officials with CHI Health Mercy Hospital and Methodist Jennie Edmundson of Council Bluffs said in a joint statement. “Based off the data we are tracking, those numbers are likely to still climb.”

MercyOne North Iowa experienced a new record number of COVID-19 patients over the weekend, according to the hospital’s data.

“Now is not the time to relax safety measures,” Brian Hanft, public health director for Cerro Gordo County, said during a news conference this week. “The virus is now at our doorstep and is knocking loudly.”

Hospital officials across the state are urging Iowans to limit their social gatherings, when in public wear a face covering and stay six feet away from others, wash their hands regularly, and stay home when they are not feeling well. They also are encouraging Iowans to get their flu shot.

Because the current spike is being driven by individuals — and not workplace or long-term care facility outbreaks like previous spikes during the pandemic — hospital officials say they need all Iowans to help control COVID-19’s spread in order to avoid overwhelming the state’s health care system.

“We are at a critical point in our state’s fight against COVID-19. It’s going to take every Iowan doing their part to get this virus under control,” Dr. Hijinio Carrion, chief medical officer for MercyOne Central Iowa, said during the news conference with Gov. Reynolds. “I’m asking you as an emergency physician, as a father, and as a husband: Please protect your families, our community, and our health care workers.”

Reporters who contributed to this story include Amie Rivers of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Tom Loewy of the Quad-City Times, Dolly Butz of the Sioux City Journal, Jared McNett of the Mason City Globe Gazette, and Michael Brownlee of the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil.

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Masks will be required at indoor gatherings of more than 25 people and outdoor gatherings of 100 people. The governor also restricted attendance at sporting events, but those measures will not apply at high school football playoff games.

Since Gov. Kim Reynolds' proclamation limiting crowds at sporting events does not apply to football at the UNI-Dome, officials may proceed with the original attendance plan. That calls for a maximum capacity of 7,000 with pod-style seating.

“We’re seeing significant community spread across our entire state both in our metro and rural communities,” the governor told reporters on a day when 4,338 new positive COVID-19 cases were reported along with 30 more confirmed deaths.

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