Health care facilities in Iowa are getting strained by the recent surge in coronavirus cases. (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)
About half of recent coronavirus infections in Iowa — which are spiking and have reached new heights in Johnson County, for example — have been caused by the omicron variant, according to State Hygienic Lab analyses.
“The surge of delta and omicron cases are stressing our health care system,” said Sarah Ekstrand, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The state’s infection rate has nearly doubled since Christmas with a recent average of about 2,800 new cases each day, according to state data.
The rise of omicron
The omicron variant of the coronavirus has now been identified in 26 Iowa counties:
As of Tuesday night, there were 792 people infected by the coronavirus receiving inpatient treatment at Iowa hospitals, an increase from 776 the previous day. That’s less than a recent peak of 843 in December and about half the pandemic peak in November 2020.
However, 157 people had been admitted for hospital treatment in the past day, which is the largest number since December 2020.
Ekstrand insinuated that people who go to emergency rooms for COVID testing are contributing to the health care strains.
“Emergency departments are not the appropriate resource for routine COVID-19 testing and should be reserved for Iowans experiencing medical emergencies,” she said.
Free at-home tests are available for pickup or by mail. The state maintains a guide for testing on its coronavirus website.
The omicron variant has now been officially confirmed in 26 counties spread across the state. The state lab identifies the variant by evaluating coronavirus genes.
The statewide infection rate is higher now than it was for all of 2021, and in Johnson County — where Iowa City is the county seat — it’s higher than it’s ever been, state data show.
“We had 354 come in today,” Danielle Pettit-Majewski, director of Johnson County Public Health, said of confirmed infections in the county. “When I started in August, that’s about what we were getting a week.”
This week, her department abandoned contact tracing — in which health officials notify people who were potentially exposed to an infected person — because it was impossible to keep up with the new cases. And that’s despite Johnson County being the most-vaccinated in the state.
About 70% of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared with about 59% statewide. Davis County, in far southern Iowa, is the lowest at about 35%. Fewer than half of fully vaccinated Iowans have received booster shots.
Spring semester classes at the University of Iowa and an influx of returning students are still more than a week away for Johnson County.
“We’re seeing a reflection of those who have traveled for the holidays,” Pettit-Majewski said. “What happens next depends on mitigation efforts. We get to decide really how bad this looks. If we ensure that we are getting vaccinated, that we are getting boosted, that we’re wearing masks indoors, if we are staying home when we are sick, this is not inevitable.”
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