Cedar Rapids hospitals warn they might not be able to keep up if virus infection rate doesn't drop

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Cedar Rapids hospitals said in a press conference Thursday that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Linn County is increasing too quickly, and they might not be able to keep up with it.

Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, pictured on March 19, 2020. (MARY GREEN/KCRG)

The number of confirmed cases rose from two on Saturday to 12 on Thursday.

“The rate that we’re doubling will overwhelm the hospitals in the next two to three weeks. We have to do better,” said Dr. Tony Myers, vice president of medical affairs at Mercy Medical Center.

Myers and other health care specialists emphasized the need for more social distancing on Thursday, reminding people to keep 6 feet between themselves and others, to only leave their homes when necessary, and to especially stay home if they're sick.

Both Mercy and St. Luke’s said they’re prepared to take care of more patients, but only if the virus’ spread slows down.

Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer at St. Luke’s, said everyone is susceptible to being infected with the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus because it’s a novel virus, and that the rate of infection is higher than other illnesses, like the flu.

“For every infectious person that comes in contact with a susceptible, four people get sick, and then that person gets four more people sick,” Arnold explained.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 20% of people infected with the virus will require hospitalization, and some of those patients will need critical care and ventilation.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said there are 280 ventilators that are available to be used in Iowa.

Mercy and St. Luke’s have “well over” 100 ventilators between the two of them, according to Arnold, and both have requested more. Myers added that they are also able to convert anesthesia machines to serve as ventilators as well.

Arnold said St. Luke’s and Mercy each have an “adequate amount” of respiratory therapists, who can operate ventilators, and that other workers are cross-trained to do this as well.

But he added that might not be enough if the rate of infection doesn’t drop.

“Think about the car wrecks that happen in the United States each year,” Arnold said. “What if they all happen on the same Tuesday? That would just overwhelm the healthcare system, so think of it from that perspective, that no matter how many ventilators we have, if this illness all presents at the same time, it would simply overwhelm the healthcare system.”

Both hospitals have also increased their intensive care capacity in the last week, but they said that’s not their biggest concern.

“Space is an issue, but staff will get to be more of a critical issue, especially if we have staff become ill. It won’t be so much about the rooms' availability; it will be about whether we have staff to take care of patients in those rooms,” Myers said, noting again the need for people to follow social distancing recommendations.

When it comes to those staff members potentially becoming infected, Mercy and St. Luke’s said they’re following the guidelines set out by the Iowa Department of Public Health for essential workers.

According to Arnold, an employee with symptoms would be tested and have to self-isolate for at least a week. Then they would have to go 72 hours without a fever and have other symptoms improve before they can return to work, where they would have to wear a mask when they interact with patients.

Both hospitals declined to say whether any of their employees have tested positive so far, citing patient privacy laws.