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COVID-19 hospitalizations have surged to their highest point in 2021, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported Wednesday.
The new total of 721 was up nearly 100 cases from the previous week and is higher than the year's previous peak of 638, set in September.
The disease's resurgence comes with the approach of winter, when respiratory ailments tend to become more common.
Dr. Aneesa Afroze, an infectious-disease physician at Des Moines MercyOne Medical Center, said that since early November, her hospital's COVID-19 caseload has more than doubled, to 50 to 60 at a time. The emergency department has become so crowded that some patients are being treated in the hallways, she said.
More than three-quarters of COVID-19 patients at MercyOne are unvaccinated, Afroze said.
"Younger and younger patients are getting admitted. That is the most frustrating part," she said.
Iowa's current COVID-19 hospitalization rate is less than half what the state saw during last fall's peak, but it could continue climbing. Afroze noted that the patients now being hospitalized would not yet include many people who caught the coronavirus during Thanksgiving travels and gatherings.
Dr. Leyla Best, an infectious-disease specialist at UnityPoint Health Des Moines, said Wednesday that just in the past day, the number of COVID-19 patients at her system's hospitals jumped 14%, to 89.
Best said a few months ago, she had hoped more Iowans would get vaccinated before winter's cold led to more indoor gatherings and more viral spread. She said hospital staffers are shorthanded and discouraged. They've seen patients suffering needlessly, and patients' families mourning.
"We keep going, but I can see the nurses are exhausted, the respiratory therapists are exhausted," she said.
'We'll see more problems,' health expert says
According to the new state statistics 172 of the 721 people hospitalized in Iowa for COVID-19 were in intensive care units. Ninety-one were on ventilators, a 36% increase from last week. More than three-quarters of Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 had not been fully vaccinated against the disease.
Suresh Gunasekaran, chief executive officer of University of Iowa Hospitals, said his staff anticipated an increase in COVID patients, given the relatively low levels of vaccination in the state. It could get worse as people gather together indoors in the coming weeks, he said.
"Honestly, at this point, by standards, we've had a really mild beginning to the winter," he said. "I think when the regular winter starts, we'll see more problems."
Hospital leaders also are worried about a resurgence of the flu. That common illness was nearly nonexistent last winter, possibly because many Americans were staying home or wearing face masks when they went into public places. Those precautions are much less common now, which could allow flu to roar back in the coming weeks.
Best said it's possible for patients to become simultaneously infected with both the flu and the coronavirus, which could be a particularly dangerous complication. Public health experts are urging everyone to seek flu shots, which can prevent severe illness and death.
The new state report showed that while COVID hospitalizations continued to rise over the past week, the number of new reported cases in Iowa this week dipped. Iowa reported 9,489 new cases this week, down from more than 10,000 last week. That's an average of 1,356 cases per day.
However, the state also reported the fewest number of new individuals tested in a week since August, potentially due to the Thanksgiving holiday. Even though the total number of new reported cases went down, the 14-day positivity rate increased to 11.2% from 10.4% the week before.
No evidence of omicron variant in Iowa yet
So far, there's no evidence that any of the Iowa cases are due to the omicron variant, which has been detected elsewhere in the world and in California. Health experts are still determining whether the new variant poses a significant threat.
The state also reported 91 additional COVID-19 deaths this week, some dating back to mid-September. COVID-19 has now killed 7,445 Iowans since the start of the pandemic.
The state did not report significant increases in COVID-19 vaccination numbers in Wednesday's update. Just over half of the state's population is fully vaccinated, according to the health department, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that more than 30% of those fully vaccinated Iowans have also received booster doses, which are now available to all adults.
Best, the UnityPoint physician, said that although more data is needed, initial reports out of South Africa suggest current vaccines could provide protection against severe disease from the omicron variant.
She hopes people who haven't been vaccinated yet will change their minds after hearing about the surge in hospitalizations and the threat of the possible variant.
"I hope they will understand that COVID is real and COVID is killing people," she said.
Gunasekaran said the pandemic will ease eventually.
"There is certainly reason to be despondent around the continued high amount of death associated with COVID infections," he said. But COVID-19 treatments are improving, he said, and some of the people who previously declined to be vaccinated are now coming in for shots.
"We will get this done," he said. "I'm extremely optimistic that within the next 12 months, the nature of this pandemic will have fundamentally changed. Unfortunately, it will not change this Christmas season."
Read more on COVID-19 in Iowa:
The latest COVID-19 numbers in Iowa
The latest data, as of 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, compared to the previous Wednesday.
Confirmed cases: 529,383, an increase of 9,489
Deaths: 7,445, an increase of 91
Total tested: 2,199,477
Total recovered: 486,466
Statewide 14-day positivity rate: 11.2%
How many people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Iowa?
Hospitalizations: 721, up from 623 one week ago
Patients in ICU: 172, up from 146
Patients on ventilators: 91, up from 67
How many people in Polk and Dallas counties are vaccinated?
In Polk County, 291,899 residents (60%) are fully vaccinated, an increase of 302 (0.1 percentage points) since last week.
In Dallas County, 55,308 residents (59%) are fully vaccinated, an increase of 67 (0.1 percentage points).
The five counties in Iowa with the highest percentage of their population fully vaccinated as of Dec. 1 are Johnson (64%), Buena Vista (62%), Linn (60%), Polk (60%) and Dallas (59%) counties.
For a county-by-county look at the vaccination rollout, see our COVID-19 vaccine tracker, which is updated weekly.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa COVID-19 hospitalizations reach new 2021 peak; 91 deaths reported