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News of the omicron variant of COVID-19 was like a bucket of ice water in the face after a refreshingly normal Thanksgiving weekend marked by in-person gatherings with family and friends.
The variant, first identified in South Africa, had already been confirmed as close as Minnesota by middle of last week. Chances are, it’ll show up in Iowa before you read this.
We don’t know much about this strain of coronavirus yet, including how easily it spreads and how effective current vaccines are at preventing infections, hospital admissions and deaths. It could be a relatively benign development, or it could drive a new, disruptive surge.
Either way, it should be a wakeup call. If omicron isn’t deadlier than delta or immune to the current vaccines, the next variants in line might be. How prepared is Iowa to deal with that?
The news hasn’t been terribly encouraging.
Last week, as omicron was confirmed in the United States, Gov. Kim Reynolds was cheering a judge’s ruling that blocked federal vaccination requirements for health-care workers.
Reynolds said she believes the vaccine is the “best defense” against COVID-19, “but I also firmly believe in Iowans’ right to make health care decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their families …”
What about Iowans’ right to seek medical care or live in a nursing home without having to risk catching COVID-19 from an unvaccinated staff person? Guess what, you have no such right. Staff at state-run care facilities have been notoriously lagging at getting vaccinated.
For example, at the Glenwood Resource Center for people with profound disabilities, 197 of the 589 state employees remained unvaccinated as of Nov. 5. The residents at Glenwood generally haven’t chosen to be there and they can’t just leave to avoid infection from unvaccinated staff.
In the 90 days leading up to Nov. 5, 28 members of the Glenwood staff had COVID-19.
A third of Iowans age 12 and older aren’t fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, hospitalizations are up 30% over the past two weeks. The number of people admitted with COVID-19 as of Dec. 1 was the highest since the vaccine became readily available.
The message from the governor continues to hold up vaccine refusal as a valid choice for anyone, not just the few with a doctor-diagnosed medical condition or genuine religious prohibition against it. This isn’t entirely about personal freedom, although I think vaccine mandates are appropriate and even necessary for health care workers.
Reynolds could stand up for Iowans’ right to choose whether to be vaccinated while making it clear that skipping the vaccine is the wrong choice. It’s a choice that has prolonged the pandemic at the cost of thousands of Iowans’ lives and economic upheaval. It’s a choice that has provided a wealth of opportunities for COVID-19 to mutate, endangering everyone. But she’s instead continued to appease the misinformed and politically active ranks of the anti-vaxxers. It’s a choice that puts every Iowan in jeopardy.
Also last week, we learned that Iowa was continuing to dismantle Iowa’s access to information about COVID-19. The Department of Public Health decided it was too “burdensome” to require hospitals to report the county of residence of people admitted with COVID-19.
Too burdensome? How many hundreds of millions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars has Iowa been spending on everything except coronavirus mitigation, testing, tracking and reporting? This fall, Gov. Kim Reynolds directed $100 million in federal virus aid to affordable housing – a worthy and needed goal but one that has very little to do with ending this pandemic. A fraction of that $100 million would pay for a lot of data reporting.
Iowa has the resources it needs to get past this virus, but it still lacks the will to do what’s necessary. That includes focusing as much public policy and leadership energy toward getting people vaccinated as has been directed at getting Iowans back to work.
Even without omicron, there have been frequent reminders this virus is still a big factor in Iowans’ lives. Anecdotally, I’ve had at least three events or meetings in the past two weeks that have been canceled, postponed or attendance affected because people involved were infected or isolating until they could get tested.
I’m beyond grateful that my family was able to celebrate Thanksgiving 2021 together. But with three weeks until Christmas and Iowa’s track record of mitigating COVID, I’m not taking anything for granted.
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