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Polk Co. officials: COVID still surging ahead of school year

By: - August 19, 2021 6:11 pm

The Richardson Independent School District in Texas is among the many districts across the state defying the governor’s mask mandate ban to require masks for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero via The Conversation)

Less than a week before Des Moines Public School students return to class, the Polk County Emergency Operations Center issued a dire update on COVID-19.

“Our hospitals are full. Our health care workers are tired,” said Helen Eddy, director of the Polk County Health Department. “This is what keeps me up at night.”

Eddy emphasized the risk of children contracting the COVID-19 virus. Less than half of Polk County teens eligible to be vaccinated — 43.5% — have received the vaccine.

“Children spread COVID-19 within their households, and those family members can then spread it in the community,” Eddy said. “We will not stop transmission in the community without stopping transmission among kids.”

Polk County health officials urged everyone to get vaccinated and wear masks in public, indoor settings, including schools. School districts are not allowed to mandate the use of face masks under current Iowa law.

Surge of infections continue

Iowa is currently in its sixth week of a COVID-19 surge. Polk County epidemiologist Dr. Meghan Schaeffer estimated that the state has another two weeks of the surge before cases stabilize, although large gatherings and a return to school may complicate the trajectory.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Iowa’s COVID-19 cases were up nearly 70% over the past two weeks. Hospitalizations were up 77% in the same time period.

But even if the numbers stabilize, that doesn’t mean a return to the relatively low rates of the early summer.

“Two states that are closest to us but that started their surge about a month before us, Arkansas and Missouri, have stabilized, albeit at a very high level still, just under where they were at almost a year ago in November,” Schaeffer said.

The majority of infections in the Midwest are caused by the more contagious delta variant.

Too soon to say if State Fair was a superspreader

Schaeffer noted that large gatherings and holidays, like July Fourth, tend to be followed by an uptick in positive cases, and then an uptick in hospitalizations. 

But she said it was “definitely impossible to say” yet whether the Iowa State Fair, which has drawn nearly 590,000 guests so far, will cause an increase in COVID-19 cases in Polk County. It takes several days after an event for people to display symptoms, get tested, and in severe cases, be hospitalized with COVID-19.


How should kids stay safe at school?

Polk County health officials encouraged the following:

  • Kids 12 and older should be vaccinated.
  • Students should wear a mask in school.
  • Continue to social distance, wash hands frequently and stay home when sick.

What should adults do?

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Wear masks indoors, even if you are vaccinated.
  • Continue to social distance, wash hands frequently and stay home when sick.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.