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‘It’s pretty alarming’: Hospital, school, public health leaders give sobering update on pandemic’s spread, impact

Published: Nov. 10, 2020 at 10:33 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The CEO of eastern Iowa’s largest hospital, the superintendent of the area’s largest school district, and a public health manager from one of Iowa’s most populous counties gave a sobering update Tuesday on just how worrisome they say the pandemic has become locally.

“Certainly what we’re seeing is uncontrolled transmission, not just here in Johnson County but across the state,” Sam Jarvis, the community health division manager for Johnson County Public Health, said during the “COVID Rising Community Webinar,” hosted by Think Iowa City.

In one of the more striking moments of the discussion, Suresh Gunasekaran, the CEO of the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, said a fear that was present earlier in the pandemic at the hospital had returned. In March and April, the fear was about catching COVID, Gunasekaran described, but now, it’s about how much worse the pandemic can get in Iowa.

“With everyone so exhausted and moving on with their lives to other things, could this time the number just keep increasing and no one care until it’s too late?” Gunasekaran said.

As he spoke Tuesday, the CEO said UIHC is in the midst of a week with record hospitalizations and believes other Iowa hospitals are facing the same situation.

As of Tuesday night, 1,190 people were in Iowa hospitals, with 230 people admitted in the preceding 24 hours.

“The math is inescapable,” Gunasekaran said. “As the infection rate increases, the hospitalization rate increases.”

As cases keep rising, Jarvis said Johnson County Public Health is treading water to follow the spread.

“It’s pretty concerning,” Jarvis said. “We are at a point where we are continually assessing how we manage to keep up with disease investigations and contact tracing.”

Schools aren’t immune either.

“We’re barely holding on by a thread,” Dr. Noreen Bush, the Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent, said.

Bush said 22 of the district’s bus drivers are out, and more than 50 employees requested Families First Coronavirus Response Act leave on Monday alone. On Tuesday, Bush announced Cedar Rapids Schools had applied for a waiver that would allow students to learn remotely from Thursday through Thanksgiving.

In addition to managing their own health, Bush said staff are also dealing with assisting their students and caring for their wellbeing during the pandemic as well.

“I think it’s just an incredible amount of stress that our staff has been managing, but yeah, it does put chinks in the morale armor — very, very, very challenging,” Bush said.

Jarvis said there’s no one specific age group or population that’s most affected at this point — it’s everyone.

Recent case investigations reveal indoor gatherings, like having friends over to watch a football game, have become some of the main spreader events, according to Gunasekaran. Even in those situations or in cases in which people have company at their homes, he and Jarvis advised people to still wear masks, saying they shouldn’t just be worn in public.

In a call for Iowans to wear their masks, Iowa Women’s Basketball Associate Head Coach Jan Jensen said people not taking these precautions could threaten another season of collegiate athletics.

“If the numbers keep going higher — we saw it with the Big Ten decision earlier when we didn’t think we were going to have football, we didn’t have football, and then for whatever reasons, we got football back, and everybody’s pretty excited about football — there is a risk that we may not be able to do that,” Jensen said.

Now, public health and hospital leaders are asking people to reconsider holiday plans and not gather with family they don’t live with.

“There are so many sacrifices that we’ve made this year. I anticipate the holiday season may be the most devastating to some,” Gunasekaran said. “But figuring out these ways that you can cope and you can connect — unfortunately, sometimes just through technology — is probably just the way to go.”

Gunasekaran said there is hope, as UIHC doctors are optimistic about the 90% reported effectiveness of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine. He said people just need to keep following the COVID precautions they’ve been following for months to get to that point.

“We fought hard for three quarters, and in the fourth quarter, we don’t want to gut it out? We’d rather lose? I mean, it is the fourth quarter,” Gunasekaran said. “That’s what the vaccine tells you. It’s not another year, it’s another couple of months. So if we can get our act together for another couple months, we’ll see this thing through.”

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