Gov. Kim Reynolds, Dr. David Williams of UnityPoint, and Dr. Hijinio Carreon of MercyOne spoke at a news conference on Thursday.

Des Moines Register

Des Moines hospitals are already jammed with COVID-19 patients, but the number could double again by Thanksgiving unless Iowans take immediate precautions to help curb the outbreak, an expert warned local leaders Tuesday. 

“We’re at a critical point,” said Dr. Meghan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist working as a consultant for Polk County. 

On Tuesday morning, 195 COVID-19 patients were being treated in Des Moines hospitals, more than double the number from two weeks ago, Schaeffer said. Having more than 150 such patients puts a strain on the hospitals, she said. But, unless the outbreak is reined in, Schaeffer said the number could hit nearly 400 by Thanksgiving . 

Over the weekend, nine of the local COVID-19 inpatients were children, demonstrating that every age group is at risk, Schaeffer said.

Polk County currently has 650 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, and the state has 805, Schaeffer noted.

“The White House task force on COVID considers an area to be a coronavirus hot spot if you’re at 100 or higher,” she said. 

Iowa has been breaking records with daily totals of more than 4,000 new positive coronavirus cases per day, but Schaeffer said those numbers could hit 10,000 by the end of the month without drastic changes in people’s behavior. 

Schaeffer’s dire warnings came in an online briefing organized by the Polk County Health Department. The briefing ran simultaneously with a state press conference, at which Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered a limited mask mandate for people who gather in groups. 

Schaeffer and other experts at the county briefing pleaded with the public to take immediate precautions against the spread of the virus. Those include avoiding gatherings, wearing face masks in public, washing hands frequently and staying home if people are feeling unwell or if they’ve been exposed to someone with the virus. 

Hospital leaders said that although they’re still accepting new patients, their facilities are jammed. Emergency rooms are backed up with patients waiting to be admitted, doctors said. 

“This situation is real, and this situation is critical,” Dr. Hijinio Carreon, chief medical officer for MercyOne-Des Moines, said at the briefing. “We need your help immediately to change the trajectory of the disease and the impact we are feeling in our hospitals.”

Carreon said the biggest concern for hospitals is a shortage of staff to care for patients. He said more than 300 staffers from Des Moines hospitals are out sick or are in quarantine. Their absence stretches their colleagues, who already are fatigued from the crisis, he said. 

Helen Eddy, director of the Polk County Health Department, pleaded with residents to take the situation seriously. She said that precautions should include reconsideration of planned family gatherings for Thanksgiving, which could lead to more spread of the virus. 

“We are asking the citizens of Polk County to listen and to take action,” Eddy said. “It is time to step up and change our behavior so that we can avoid the unthinkable — our health care system unable to care for all patients.”

‘This is what exponential growth looks like’

Earlier Tuesday, a leading infectious disease expert said the surge in hospital patients was expected, given a spike last month in Iowans testing positive for the coronavirus. 

“This is what exponential growth looks like,” Dr. Rossana Rosa, an infectious-disease expert for UnityPoint Health-Des Moines, said in an interview. 

Although the UnityPoint-Des Moines hospitals are very full, “we are not turning patients away,” Rosa said. She stressed that if people are feeling severely ill, they still should go to a hospital or call 911.

To make room for the surge in COVID-19 patients, Des Moines hospitals have started postponing non-emergency procedures, such as hip replacements, Rosa said. Hospital leaders also are planning how to set up temporary intensive care units in other areas, such as operating rooms, she said.

Rosa said that even if Iowans suddenly get serious about taking preventive measures to curb the coronavirus, hospitalizations probably would continue to climb for a couple of weeks. That’s how long it generally takes infected people to become severely ill with COVID-19.

Rosa noted that the world received great news Monday, with the announcement that Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine appears to provide 90% protection.

But it will take several months before such vaccines are widely available to the public, she said. In the meantime, society needs to take precautions, such as social distancing and mask wearing, to prevent as many deaths as possible.

“That goal line is now in sight,” she said. “We’re not asking people to do these things forever.”

Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at [email protected] or 515-284-8449. 

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