Masked students begin the year at King Elementary School in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)
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By Katie Akin, Iowa Capital Dispatch 

COVID-19 cases in Polk County were surging Wednesday as Des Moines Public School students returned to the classroom, multiple metrics show.

The Polk County Health Department announced this week that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise in Des Moines. The most recent data available shows there were 109 COVID patients in Polk County hospitals, including four minors.

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That’s the highest number of simultaneous COVID patients under 18 since the onset of the pandemic, according to the health department release. 

“Our hospitals are full. Our health care workers are tired,” said Helen Eddy, director of the Polk County Health Department. “Parents and guardians are scared to send their children to schools.”

Wednesday was the first full day of class for Des Moines Public Schools. In accordance with state law, the district did not impose a mask mandate for students or staff. Dwana Bradley, chair of the DMPS school board,issued a statement to concerned parents on Wednesday afternoon explaining why the  district would not require masks, despite federal guidance to do so.

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“It is abundantly clear to the experts that when everyone wears a mask, we keep kids healthy and in school, and most importantly we save lives as we wait for the vaccine to become available to our children,” Bradley wrote.

Bradley urged parents to send children to school wearing face coverings.

Sewage survey shows cases surging in Des Moines metro

The Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority reported Tuesday that Des Moines sewage revealed a higher concentration of COVID-19 than 85% of other cities. 

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The Wastewater Authority has been sending in sewage samples since mid-July. The most recent report from an Aug. 18 sample revealed that the concentration of COVID-19 in sewage had more than doubled since an Aug. 4 sample, indicating that the virus is spreading in the community.

Since the first sample on July 19, the prevalence of COVID-19 in the sewage samples is over seven times higher.

New York Times data shows Polk County has seen a 52% increase in cases over the last two weeks. Hospitalizations are up 20%.

COVID-19 increasing across Iowa

Communities across Iowa have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks as the delta variant spreads in the state.

Over the last two weeks, COVID cases in Iowa have increased by 47% and hospitalizations have increased by 40%. The Iowa Department of Public Health reported Wednesday evening that the majority of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 — 79% — were unvaccinated individuals. Of COVID patients in the ICU, 86% were not vaccinated. 

The release notes that the vast majority of hospitalizations are middle age or elderly adults. Only 2% of hospitalizations are children under 18.

Iowa’s vaccination rate has crept up only slightly in recent weeks. As of Wednesday, 63% of Iowa adults were fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times.

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“We have many tools we need to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and the single most important tool we have is the vaccine, which is highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death,” Iowa Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia said in a Wednesday evening news release. “For anyone who was waiting for the assurance of full FDA authorization, I urge you to schedule your appointment today,”

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