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‘The curve’ is en route

Record new COVID-19 cases intensify urgency for public masking, cooperation; Hospital to postpone overnight stay procedures; Hospitalization rates on track to dwarf September, October

-Messenger file photo by Elijah Decious
Webster County saw a record number of new COVID-19 cases this week: over 400 in the last six days, with daily averages and positivity rates showing no end in sight.

Eight months after officials started telling Iowans to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections to avoid overwhelming health care resources, Webster County saw a record increase in new COVID-19 cases this week.

At least 400 new positive cases arrived in a viral tsunami over the last six days after hospital and elected officials started sounding the alarm, telling residents that the sheer volume of the virus’ latest wave could realistically inundate health care institutions soon.

Since last Friday, the Iowa Department of Public Health showed 391 new cases in Webster County. Webster County Public Health (WCPH) reported that the local number was greater than that. The county now has 530 open cases and is averaging 40 to 50 new cases per day, with many of the clusters stemming from group gatherings.

Two more lives have been claimed by the virus since The Messenger’s last report, bringing the death toll to 20 in Webster County.

“There are now so many … who are symptomatic or directly exposed to a positive case that the sheer volume and number of positive cases coming in is extraordinary,” said Kelli Bloomquist, public information officer for WCPH. “Webster County continues to see a surge in COVID-19 cases. We are at a pivotal place in the health of our county.”

-Messenger file photo by Elijah Decious
Protective face shields are mounted next to a door at UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center.

A recent White House Coronavirus Task Force report showed that Iowa is experiencing the fourth-steepest coronavirus outbreak in the country behind North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The severity has increased so much that the task force coined a new term, “unyielding spread,” to describe the steep inclines across all metrics, beseeching Iowa leaders to take “immediate action including mask requirements to decrease severity in morbidity and mortality among Iowans.”

As the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital peaks, UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center (TRMC) is adopting new restrictions to preserve beds and nursing resources for those with the greatest needs. From Nov. 16 to Nov. 27, Fort Dodge’s hospital will postpone all non-urgent outpatient procedures that require an overnight stay. CEO Leah Glasgo said the restriction will be evaluated on a weekly basis using positivity rates, bed capacities and staffing capacities.

The numbers of COVID-19 patients hospitalized each month since May demonstrate the severity of the situation:

• May, June and July: 13 patients each month.

• August: 24 patients

• September: 28 patients

• October: 48 patients

• Nov. 1 to Nov. 12: 36 patients, 22 of whom remain hospitalized.

If November daily averages continue, the hospital could see 90 patients by the end of the month – nearly double October’s number and triple September’s total.

“That’s why we’ve been very forward with our communication on the urgency of (the public’s) responsibility to help us bend the curve,” Glasgo said.

The average stay of a COVID-19 patient is about eight days — more than double the stay for all other patients. The median age of a COVID-19 patient is 65.

For now, outpatient procedures and clinical services that don’t require an overnight stay will continue to prevent compounding medical complications from delaying routine and necessary care.

In addition to wearing a mask and refraining from group gatherings, Glasgo also asks the public to get their flu shot to reduce the imminent flu patient surge.

“We don’t see that (flu patient surge) yet, but we know it’s coming,” she said.

As hospitals across the state become similarly swamped, it has become apparent that nurses in Fort Dodge, like other hospitals, are being stretched toward a breaking point.

“They’re both physically and mentally exhausted. We’re on nine months now,” Glasgo said. “(Their dedication) is really nothing short of amazing. It is a stretch, though. We are right close to that balance of the number of staff out and the beds we’re able to care for.”

Even if enough beds exist, the number of nurses has become the limiting factor in the capacity to care for patients.

“Staffing is one of our biggest challenges right now,” said Kari Jones, chief nurse executive. “We are seeing an increasing number of staff out with COVID-19 or isolating at home and because of this, adequate staffing remains an issue for our system. It’s important for the public to understand that while we may have beds available, the concern is having the necessary hands available to staff those beds.”

Even with the benefits of being part of UnityPoint’s statewide system, other larger hospitals like Des Moines and Sioux City have become just as pressed. While Glasgo said TRMC could not afford to send its staff to assist other hospitals, it has not yet had a need to import nurses to assist in Fort Dodge. The hospital is looking to hire temporary nurses, patient companions and dietary staff, which the public can apply for at unitypoint.org\joinourteam.

“Please honor (nurses’) daily sacrifices and wear your mask, limit gatherings, practice social distancing, wash your hands, et cetera,” Jones said.

As that plea rings louder, a petition from Megan Secor asking county supervisors to act on a mask mandate gained more than300 new signatures, bringing the total to over 1,000 Thursday. Supervisor Nick Carlson said the Board of Health has scheduled a Wednesday meeting to consider a resolution requiring residents to mask up in public. If the board passes the resolution, the Board of Supervisors would need to pass an accompanying resolution.

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