COVID hospitalizations highest since vaccines became available

By: - December 1, 2021 6:21 pm

The number of people with COVID-19 receiving inpatient treatment at Iowa hospitals has reached a new high for the year. (Photo by Damir Cudic/Getty Images)

The number of people with COVID-19 receiving inpatient treatment at Iowa hospitals steeply rose this past week and reached a new high for the year of 721 on Wednesday, according to state data.

That’s the highest number of concurrently hospitalized patients in Iowa since coronavirus vaccines became widely available.

“Going into the cold season with the delta wave ongoing, and on top of that you add another variant that is possibly more transmissible — we are worried,” said Dr. Ravi Vemuri, an infectious disease specialist for MercyOne in Des Moines who treats COVID-19 patients.

The other variant Vemuri referred to was omicron, which was identified last week in southern Africa. Omicron’s presence in the United States was confirmed Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infected person was in California and was vaccinated against the coronavirus.

At the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics on Wednesday, there were 40 people with COVID-19 being treated on an inpatient basis, said Laura Shoemaker, a UIHC spokeswoman. That’s less than half of UIHC’s peak of 100 during the height of the pandemic last year.

“That’s still much, much higher than we have seen in a long time, which is a bit discouraging at this point in the pandemic,” Shoemaker said. “But while a significant chunk of the population remains unvaccinated, COVID is still in high transmission, and unvaccinated people are much more vulnerable to severe disease and hospitalization.”

Infected Iowans have been dying at a higher rate than the peak in the early months of the pandemic when no vaccines were available, state data show. During a two-week period in May 2020, there were 193 deaths. During a recent two-week period in October, there were 221 deaths.

More-recent rates are unclear because it can take a month for the state to report COVID-related deaths.

The number of current hospitalizations is about half of its peak in November 2020 of 1,510. The two-week death rate peaked in December 2020 at 849. That was four times higher than recent rates.

New confirmed coronavirus cases reported by the state abruptly lessened over the Thanksgiving holiday along with conducted tests.

Iowa has had a persistently elevated hospitalization rate in recent months. Hospitals have been able to manage it because there has been no spike comparable to late last year, but doctors and nurses are tired, Vemuri said.

“The ongoing persistent nature of this is not good for the health care system as a whole,” he said. “But we’re very proud of what everyone is doing.”

Vemuri encouraged people to get the vaccine or a booster shot if eligible. Many of the vaccinated patients he has treated at the hospital had their second vaccine dose more than six months ago, and the vaccine’s effectiveness might have waned.

The State Hygienic Lab is analyzing the gene sequences of about 300 coronavirus samples each week to monitor for omicron, said Mike Pentella, its director.

The lab “has found no evidence yet of the omicron variant in Iowa, though it could be lurking here,” he said. “When it arrives, the lab has the equipment and expertise to identify the variant.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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