Iowa COVID hospitalizations have reached new low

By: - May 19, 2023 4:21 pm

The pandemic has at times stretched hospitals thin. (Photo by Morsa Images/Getty Images)

The number of people with COVID-19 who are receiving inpatient treatment at Iowa hospitals on any given day is at its lowest since at least August 2020, according to federal health data.

That reflects a downward trend of infections that require intensive care or longer stays at the hospitals, said Dr. Matthew Sojka, chief medical officer at MercyOne Northeast Iowa.

“The numbers are way down,” he said. “Today, we had no COVID patients at any of our three facilities. We definitely have seen a decrease in that volume.”

Those locations include Cedar Falls, Oelwein and Waterloo.

Iowa’s concurrent COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their lowest since at least August 2020. (Courtesy of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

There were an average of 51 infected people receiving inpatient care at Iowa hospitals last week, according to the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. That is slightly lower than the previous lulls in June 2021 and April 2022 that followed the largest spikes in documented infections.

Peak COVID hospitalizations in Iowa happened in November 2020 and January 2022, when inpatients averaged about 1,400 and 950.

“It feels a lot better,” said Dr. Jason Kruse, who has treated COVID patients at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines throughout the pandemic. “I think that we’re still kind of cautious. There’s concerns about what happens if there’s another variant that pops up, but for now we seem to be doing a lot better as far as total burden on hospitals.”

Hospitalizations that are reported to federal health officials are now the most reliable indicator of the coronavirus’ threat to Iowans because state health officials eliminated a requirement for clinical labs to report test results in April, when Iowa stopped reporting its documented cases to federal officials.

Last week, when the federal COVID-19 public health emergency declaration ended, the CDC switched the focus of its COVID data reporting to hospitalizations and deaths associated with the virus.

“Case data has become increasingly unreliable as some states and jurisdictions may no longer collect case data, testing results are sometimes not reported, or some individuals skip testing all together,” the CDC explained.

Sojka said the reduced amount of information about documented infections is troubling because it lessens his ability to anticipate potential upticks in virus activity to plan for changes in hospitalizations.

“Without that information, I’m a little blinded,” he said.

Iowa decommissioned its COVID-19 dashboard in April that had more-comprehensive data than what it now published in its weekly respiratory virus surveillance report, which previously focused mainly on influenza.

After the state changed its reporting requirements on April 1, the number of documented infections dropped 82% and continues to decline at a rate greater than that of hospitalizations.

In its most recent report on Friday, the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services noted 118 positive tests last week for the entire state. That is down from 393 in its report six weeks ago just after the change, and down from 2,145 in its final dashboard report before the change.

State officials noted that, even before the change, the case numbers it reported did not accurately depict the spread of the disease because of the widespread use of at-home, rapid tests that were not documented by the state.

A spokesperson for HHS did not immediately respond Friday to a request to comment about the overall outlook for COVID-19 in Iowa.

Sojka said the disease is likely to have seasonal upticks going forward similar to influenza and that people with higher risks for complications should continue to avoid larger gatherings when they can.

“We’re getting to the point of COVID being just another one of the viruses out there,” he said.

The state has also modified how it reports deaths related to COVID-19. The latest respiratory surveillance report on Friday notes 766 deaths since early October. That compares with 140 deaths associated with influenza over that same timeframe.

Previously, the state published a running total of COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. That number is now about 10,920, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch analysis.

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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.