Iowa is facing an unprecedented health crisis this holiday season, with respiratory illnesses including COVID-19, RSV, and influenza reaching extreme levels statewide. Hospitalizations and deaths are spiking, while health officials urge vaccinations and other preventative measures.
Flu Hospitalizations Skyrocket Across Iowa
Flu hospitalizations have jumped 250% in Iowa over the past month according to state public health data. As of December 16th, 256 Iowans were hospitalized with influenza, up from 73 hospitalizations just one month earlier. The hospitalization rate is higher than any flu season since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Polk County Public Health Director Helen Eddy notes this is the earliest the flu has had this big an impact in her 30 years in public health. She states, “We have not seen flu hospitalization rates this high, this early in the season, for more than a decade.”
The Iowa Department of Public Health warns this could be the worst flu season in years. State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati says, “Flu can be very dangerous, landing people in the hospital and causing many deaths each year…The unusually high level of flu circulating this early is deeply concerning.”
RSV and COVID Also Spiking
Influenza is not the only respiratory virus overwhelming Iowa hospitals. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 infections are also skyrocketing.
The CDC reports Iowa had the highest RSV hospitalization rate in the nation last week. MercyOne Medical Center in Des Moines has been over 100% capacity treating RSV and other critically ill patients. Over 30 children are hospitalized with RSV at Blank Children’s hospital in Des Moines.
Meanwhile, new omicron subvariants have driven a doubling of Iowa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations since November. The 7-day average for COVID hospitalizations now exceeds 290, on par with last winter’s peak during the omicron surge.
|Current Iowa Hospitalizations
|Change from 1 month ago
Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy warns, “Our healthcare systems and hospitals are under extreme stress right now with these unprecedented levels of serious respiratory illnesses in our community.”
Predictions of Crisis Levels Through Holidays
Health experts predict respiratory illnesses will remain at crisis levels in Iowa through the December holidays and likely well into 2023. Cooler winter weather drives people indoors where viruses spread more easily. Holiday gatherings also raise risks.
University of Iowa Hospitals infectious disease specialist Dr. Theresa Brennan warns this triple threat of flu, RSV, and COVID hitting simultaneously could completely overwhelm Iowa hospitals. She states, “This convergence of respiratory illnesses is extremely worrisome and threatens to push our healthcare system to the brink this winter.”
State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati agrees, noting “There is growing concern these spikes foreshadow an extremely challenging winter for respiratory illness.” She worries omicron subvariants evading immunity will continue driving up COVID hospitalizations, while flu and RSV have yet to peak.
Eddy says their best case scenario predictions have influenza and RSV hospitalizations remaining dangerously high for 8 more weeks. Under worst case scenarios, the crisis could drag on through March. She implores Iowans to take preventative action, warning, “Our community is facing a historic public health crisis from this ‘tripledemic’ that threatens lives.”
Urgent Call for Vaccinations, Precautions
Health officials across Iowa are urgently calling on residents to get vaccinated and take precautions against respiratory illnesses. They advise everyone get an updated COVID-19 booster along with an annual flu shot to reduce hospitalization risks.
The flu vaccine is a key tool recommended for everyone over 6 months old. Dr. Pedati states, “It is not too late to get protected against what could be a severe flu season…Do it now before holiday gatherings and travel.”
COVID-19 boosters have also proven very effective protecting against severe omicron infections. Eddy notes less than a quarter of Iowans have received the latest boosters, well below optimal levels. She pleads with at-risk individuals to get updated COVID shots, warning “This latest wave of COVID threatens our most vulnerable populations.”
Beyond vaccinations, Iowans are advised to follow mitigation strategies that worked earlier in the pandemic:
- Wear high quality masks in indoor public places
- Improve indoor air quality and ventilation where possible
- Stay home when sick
- Practice good hand hygiene
- Get tested for COVID and flu when symptomatic
Eddy states implementing these simple precautions could dramatically slow viral spread and relieve overwhelmed hospitals. She concludes, “Our best hope is Iowans band together once again in shared sacrifice and community protection to overcome this crisis.”
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