By Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch
Infections caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus have rapidly overtaken those of other variants and accounted for about 79% of samples analyzed by the State Hygienic Laboratory in the first two weeks of this month.
The state’s infection rate has reached an all-time high for the pandemic. During a recent one-week period, there were an average of more than 6,500 positive tests recorded per day.
“The omicron variant has driven up the number of cases of COVID-19 as well as demand for testing,” said Alex Carfrae, a spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services.
Test processing and test availability might be affected by the surge in cases “for brief periods of time,” he said.
Weather, too, has been a factor. Polk County closed a drive-through testing site for the rest of this week due to frigid conditions.
The increase in infections has been pronounced in the state’s most populous counties, including Woodbury, where the infection rate is more than double its previous peak and hospitals are struggling to have sufficient staff to treat patients.
“They have been stressed. They have been stretched,” said Kevin Grieme, director of the Siouxland District Health Department.
The department stopped calling people months ago to notify them of potential exposures to the coronavirus — what is commonly called “contact tracing” — but now it’s contacting those with confirmed infections who are 55 years or older to warn about potential signals that their infections are becoming severe, such as shortness of breath.
“It’s to give them an idea of when it’s an appropriate time to get medical attention,” Grieme said.
The number of infected people receiving inpatient treatment at a hospital is higher than it was a week ago and recently surpassed 1,000, according to state data. There were 991 such patients — 32 of them children — on Tuesday, a 7% increase in the past week.
There were more than 1,500 COVID-19 patients in hospitals at one point in November 2020, but those hospitalizations quickly tapered. Recent hospitalizations have been building for months.
Unvaccinated residents accounted for about 64% of those receiving treatment and 72% of those under intensive care, according to state data.
It’s unclear how the omicron surge will affect the number of deaths among infected residents because such reports can be delayed for more than a month. In late December, about 17 people with COVID-19 were dying per day, state data show. More than 10 have been dying per day, on average, since early September.
Reynolds says omicron spreading through U.S.
Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters Wednesday that national data shows the whole country has been hard-hit by the omicron variant.
“No matter what you do, no matter what’s happening, omicron has been very contagious and it is spreading,” she said.
Reynolds reminded Iowans that the Test Iowa program offers free, at-home PCR tests, and she said she would “continue to talk about the importance of getting the vaccine and the booster.”
“It’s not as effective with omicron, but it prevents serious illness and it’s helping keep them out of the hospital, so we’ll continue to talk about the importance of that as well,” she said.
Reynolds was ill last week, cancelling her public events on Thursday and Friday. She tested negative for COVID-19 on Thursday, and she told reporters on Wednesday that she tested negative again on Wednesday morning. She guessed that she picked up the flu from her mother’s nursing home.
“I spend a lot of time telling people, ‘When you’re sick, stay home,’” Reynolds said. “And so I decided I maybe better take my own advice and stay home.”
— By Katie Akin