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Buena Vista case spike causes concern

Though the immediate local impacts of a severe overnight spike of COVID-19 cases in Buena Vista County are not yet clear, some are taking it as a warning of what could hit Webster County and its bordering neighbors.

Those picking up one of the local Storm Lake newspapers Wednesday morning saw “246 cases” in black and white on the front page, but between press time Tuesday and breakfast time Wednesday, that number was already old news.

The number nearly tripled to 662 by about 8 a.m. By the end of Wednesday, it floated to 681, giving Buena Vista County the highest infection rate, per 100,000 people, in the state.

Dr. Megan Srinivas, a physician and infectious disease specialist for Community Health Center of Fort Dodge, said that the situation demonstrates that rural Iowa, including Webster County, remains “very vulnerable” to COVID-19 waves, with similar demographics and fluid proximity between counties due to the nature of rural commuting.

“As we can see, COVID-19 is still here, and the actions we do today will impact the lives that are lost three to five weeks from now,” she said.

But before her reaction, doctors on the floor in Storm Lake’s Buena Vista Regional Medical Center (BVRMC) started to cite concerns and mentioned Fort Dodge.

“Our ER was full of (COVID-19) cases last night,” said Dr. Lisa Shepherd in a Facebook post over Memorial Day weekend.

She said that young adults without risk factors were increasingly being admitted for advanced medical treatment and transfers, but that Sioux City hospitals were no longer accepting transfers.

“Fort Dodge has ICU beds and ventilators left, as our next nearest larger hospital,” she said.

The post, made before the county’s caseload spiked, has since been taken down. Shepherd declined further comment, saying she was “not at liberty” to share additional information as a UnityPoint Health employee.

UnityPoint Health officials at Trinity Regional Medical Center acknowledged that Fort Dodge’s hospital has received transfers from Storm Lake, but declined to specify how many.

Data from the Iowa Department of Public Health shows that 53% of inpatient beds were available in Regional Medical Coordination Center (RMCC) Region 3, where both Webster and Buena Vista counties are located. That number was the highest percentage of all six regions in the state Wednesday.

Trinity Regional Medical Center (TRMC) houses about 49 of those inpatient beds, slightly less than 10% of the total number available.

Data also shows that 93 intensive care unit beds are available in the region, though it does not note the total number of ICU beds housed in the region.

A total of 74 ventilators are available for use in the region, about 68% of the total number held by Region 3. TRMC declined to share the specific number of ventilators currently housed in Fort Dodge, stressing the capacity to acquire more from others in the UnityPoint system.

“Ventilators on hand is not an accurate snapshot,” said Alyssa Stanek, communications specialist for TRMC.

Srinivas said that the latest research shows that about 60% of those contracting COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms, 20% are completely asymptomatic and 20% become very ill and at risk of dying.

Assuming only 20% of the most recent cases in Buena Vista County require hospitalization, data on available ICU beds show that the region could soon face challenges, not taking into consideration the cases from the other 20 counties in the region.

The recently reported COVID-19 cases were expected, according to BVRMC and public health officials in Buena Vista County, after extensive testing probed the area, which is home to a Tyson meat packing plant. Test Iowa, the statewide testing site initiative, has been there for nearly two weeks.

“Please know we expected this result given the very aggressive testing that has taken place between BVRMC, long-term care facilities testing by Public Health, Test Iowa and other local industry conducting testing,” said Rob Colerick, CEO of BVRMC.

He said that the hospital has ample capacity to continue caring for COVID-19 patients.

“The hospital has been preparing for this for quite a while,” said Pam Bogue, administrator of Buena Vista County Public Health & Home Care.

She said that the local hospital is also prepared to transfer patients who need more care than BVRMC can provide.

For now, Webster County Public Health said no requests for assistance with testing or additional personal protective equipment have been received.

In Fort Dodge, TRMC also has the capacity to expand its capacity under a “surge plan,” which would increase acute inpatient beds from 49 to 85, and ICU beds from 14 to 23.

Messenger Editor Bill Shea contributed to this story.

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