Hospitals feel the pain of COVID surge, may delay procedures

By: - November 5, 2020 4:11 pm

Dr. Hijinio Carreon is chief medical officer for MercyOne Des Moines. He spoke at Gov. Kim Reynolds’ news conference on Nov. 5, 2020. (Screenshot of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ news conference)

Representatives of major Iowa hospitals on Thursday appealed to Iowans to get more serious about wearing masks and washing their hands as the state continued a record spike in COVID-19 cases and doctors feared hospitals will run out of space. 

“We are at a critical point in our state’s fight against COVID-19,” said Dr. Hijinio Carreon, chief medical officer for MercyOne Des Moines, who appeared with Gov. Kim Reynolds at a news conference in her office at the Iowa Capitol. “It’s going to take every Iowan doing their part to get this virus under control. I’m asking you as an emergency department physician, as a father, and as a husband.”

Dr. David M. Williams serves as chief clinical officer for UnityPoint Health. He spoke Nov. 5, 2020, at Gov. Kim Reynolds’ news conference at the Iowa Capitol. (Screen shot from event livestream)

Dr. Dave Williams, chief clinical officer for UnityPoint Health, at the same news conference, said Iowans must change their ways. 

“Fellow Iowans, it’s time we have to start listening,” Williams said. “You know the illness burden in our community and in our country is too high. And it’s time that we really buckle down and really start doing something about it.

“You may be sick of hearing it, but I need you to listen: Wash your hands. Socially distance when you can. Avoid large gatherings. Get your flu shot. Stay home when you’re sick. Get tested. It’s time to get this pandemic under control. Let’s save you, let’s save your family, and I want you to save my family,” Williams said. 

Reynolds made a similar appeal for voluntary measures to address the pandemic. She announced no new mitigation efforts such as a mask mandate or closure of restaurants, bars or other facilities that draw a crowd. 

“When I’ve talked to Iowans about the struggles that they have endured the last nine months, I have heard from business owners who are finally starting to make a comeback, have indicated they can’t afford another shutdown,” Reynolds said. “Families who for the first time have received assistance from the state or their local communities when they couldn’t make ends meet because they lost their jobs. Parents who are grateful to finally have their kids back in school, where they are flourishing not only academically but socially and emotionally.”

Reynolds has said it is important to keep businesses and schools running for the economy, and for the mental health and educational needs of Iowans. She has said mask-wearing is a matter of personal responsibility, and that a state mandate would be impossible to enforce. 

“It is important that every Iowan do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Reynolds said Thursday. 

On Monday, Suresh Gunasekaran, CEO at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, issued a statement  calling the surge “the worst chapter of the pandemic so far” for hospitals across the state.

Suresh Gunasekaran is CEO at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)

“If COVID cases continue to increase on this same trajectory, the health care system as we know it will look very different in 30 days,” Gunasekaran reported. He said hospitals may have to ban visitors, reschedule surgeries, delay appointments, and adjust hours. 

The latest statistics suggest Iowans’ compliance with voluntary measures has fallen short. The state is experiencing a second spike of COVID that in some ways is more remarkable, statistically speaking, than the first one last spring. It comes as cool weather and a new flu season approach. 

As of Thursday afternoon, 839 COVID patients were in Iowa hospitals, the state reported. The New York Times reports Iowa’s average of 2,343 new cases a day is a record jump of 118% over the past two weeks. On Wednesday, the state saw 2,739 new cases and 21 deaths, the Times reported.

Gregg Lagan, MercyOne’s media relations coordinator in Des Moines, said the MercyOne network of hospitals around the state has seen increases in COVID-related hospitalizations the past three weeks. MercyOne has enough hospital beds and equipment for now, and continues to do non-emergency surgeries, which were suspended in the spring for a time under Reynolds’ order. 

“That is one of the areas that would be looked at if we need to adjust,” Lagan said. 

“Like the other Des Moines hospitals, we have been seeing increases in the need for COVID hospitalizations,” Lagan said. “We remain able to provide care for any kind of health care need. We have seen three weeks of increases. We were in a good stretch where we would care for 20 to 30 patients at a time for COVID (at the Des Moines area hospitals). Those numbers have gone up communitywide for all hospitals.”

Lagan said the number of COVID patients at MercyOne’s Des Moines and West Des Moines hospitals is now running 50 to 75 at a time.

More than half of Iowa’s map has turned red as the coronavirus spikes in many counties, the Times reported. Polk County, which includes the capital city of Des Moines, spiked recently before leveling off somewhat and is seeing 32 new cases a day. Linn County, with the state’s second-largest city, Cedar Rapids, is logging 88 new cases a day. 

But neither of those larger counties is seeing the kind of spike that the Mississippi River town of Dubuque is. There, 104 new cases are logged each day, the Times reported. 

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, 839 COVID-19 patients were in Iowa hospitals at noon Thursday, up 8% from Tuesday. Hospital admissions stood at 156 over the previous 24 hours, down from 164 from the day before. The 188 patients in intensive care units was up from 182 on Tuesday. 

The percentage of hospital beds available, 33.26%, was down a couple of percentage points in a few weeks, the state reported. The 367 intensive care beds available was down from 446 on Oct. 1. 

Hospital officials said they have learned how to respond to COVID spikes after the spring surge.

“We are more prepared, at this time, to manage not only the volume but the (type) of illness we’re seeing across our state,” Carreon said. MercyOne is working with other hospitals “to ensure we can meet the needs of our community and our state,” he added. 

As it would even if there were no pandemic, MercyOne will use contingency plans to transfer patients to other facilities, if needed. “Transferring patients impacted by severe illness or injury is normal to all our operations at each of our hospitals,” Carreon said. 

Steve Sullivan, spokesman for Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, said the hospital set a record this week, caring for 17 COVID patients. The previous record was 16 earlier this week, and before that, 15 several months ago, Sullivan said. 

“We are seeing an uptick,” Sullivan said. “We have been at 10 or under the last several weeks.”

Mary Greeley has ample equipment and has not had to transfer patients to other hospitals. It continues to do non-emergency surgeries, Sullivan said. 

MercyOne North Iowa in Mason City on Monday reported a record number of COVID patients, but didn’t disclose how many. “We are adjusting our operations to ensure we continue to accommodate more patients while delivering safe care,” the hospital said in a news release. 

“Like many hospitals in Iowa, our medical center is experiencing increases in the need for coronavirus care,” the statement added. The hospital urged Iowans to wear masks and take other precautions. 

Nola Aigner Davis, spokeswoman for the Polk County Health Department, said local hospitals are worried about community spread of COVID-19.

“People are not following COVID-19 mitigation strategies. People are not wearing masks, social distancing, staying home when sick, washing hands, etc.,” Aigner Davis said. “We have seen this due to COVID-19 fatigue or simply not being concerned for the welfare and well-being of themselves and the community. “

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.