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Hospital official says COVID cases 'reached critical junction'

MT. PLEASANT — As cases rise in Henry County and throughout Iowa, public health and hospital staff are asking residents and business leaders to remain vigilant about mitigation tactics.

Michelle Rosell, chief operating officer for Henry County Health Center, and Angie Rhum, a nurse with Henry County Public Health, gave an update on the county’s strategy at a meeting on Monday, organized by the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance.

“It is very real, and we need to do all we can to mitigate spread because resources are going to be at their max,” Rosell said.

The hospital administrator said hospitalizations across the state have “reached a critical juncture,” with nearly 1,400 Iowans admitted to hospitals due to the coronavirus.

Currently, the Mt. Pleasant hospital has 10 active COVID-19 cases, alongside patients who are at the hospital for other reasons. The hospital has expanded the number of COVID-19 rooms in anticipation of more patients. Rosell added the hospital is in its Phase 1 surge plan but has a Phase 2 and Phase 3 identified if needed. The COO added the hospital was able to avoid the first surge anticipated in March and has adequate supplies and protective gear and equipment. With rising cases, however, resources would still be stretched thin in the coming weeks.

“This is a real situation here in Henry County, and people are sick … we’re anticipating with the Thanksgiving holiday, that maximum capacity is going to be reached within a matter of weeks,” Rosell said of the state’s ability to care for more coronavirus cases.

Rhum said the county, as of Monday morning, has had 1,539 and was at a 20.7 percent rate of virus tests being positive over the past 14 days. Rhum said she often looks at the positivity rate to track the spread of the virus because it is a 14-day average.

The nurse said the department has seen a rise in cases and now is contacting 20 to 30 individuals for follow-up calls for contact tracing each day following positive test results. The nurse said cases are tracked by home address, so those living in Henry County but tested elsewhere will still be tracked by the local public health.

Like the hospital, Rhum said public health has similarly experienced a strain in resources as the pandemic worsens in the area. The nurse said the department is “very overwhelmed” and currently behind in follow-up calls and contact tracing. The department is seeing its own staff shortages as well due to the virus.

In terms of testing, Rhum said individuals can go through their physician or other testing sites including Test Iowa or places like Hy-Vee, which are offering self-administered tests. Rosell added the hospital is providing rapid testing at all four rural health clinics in Mt. Pleasant, New London, Wayland and Winfield.

Rosell added residents should reach out to their primary care doctors first if feeling sick or dealing with a positive test result and seek immediate medical attention if it is an emergency. Rhum added the public health department is always open to take questions over the phone about the virus and potential exposures and protocols to follow moving forward.

Both Rosell and Rhum said as the pandemic has continued, people may be tempted to relax and begin forgoing mitigation measures.

“The community spread has significantly increased. I don’t know that we have been terribly effective as a region as a state with mitigation. I know I will go out to stores and frequently see people unmasked. Masking has been a proven deterrent,” Rosell said.

Rhum added social distancing, proper hand hygiene and staying home when sick are incredibly important measures to take to keep the community safe. Both health care workers added properly wearing masks and proper washing is just as important as a mitigation strategy.

In terms of another potential shutdown, Rhum said Gov. Reynold’s most recent proclamation encourages businesses to re-evaluate whether employees have the ability to work from home. If that is not feasible, Rhum said making sure to follow mitigation tactics such as spacing out desks and wearing masks when within 6-feet of one another will be necessary.

With holidays coming up, Rhum added advice has been to limit celebrations to household members or weigh the consequences of choices in terms of traveling and visiting other households.

“You need to think ahead. If you are exposed at this Thanksgiving event, and you need to quarantine for 14 days, what is that going to look like for you? Do you want to have to deal with that?” she said.