The Quad Cities is not immune to the nationwide surge in COVID cases, and the changing pandemic should spur changes in people’s behavior, several local health experts said Wednesday.

In a Zoom media call, Dr. Christopher Crome, vice president of medical affairs for Genesis Health System, said the increase in COVID cases is likely due to a number of factors — such as a lack of masking and physical distancing indoors, large indoor gatherings, and current low vaccination rates on the community.

“We are now almost two weeks post-Thanksgiving, and we are beginning to see people who were exposed during gatherings requiring hospitalization,” he said. “The current increase in COVID patients has had a significant impact on our census at all of our hospital campuses. In our ICU on Tuesday, for example we had 16 patients (total ICU census is 20) who have been diagnosed with COVID.”

Christopher Crome, vice president of medical affairs for Genesis Health System

Of those 16 patients, 13 are on a ventilator, Dr. Crome said. “The increasing numbers of COVID patients requiring hospitalization results in strain on local healthcare resources to care for all patients who require care,” he said. “The majority of our hospitalized patients with COVID continue to be unvaccinated. On Tuesday, 15 out of the 16 COVID patients were not vaccinated.”

“The difference between this year and last year is last year, our hospital systems were largely focused on managing COVID cases — we did not have a census of other types of illnesses and we’re not doing the surgical volume that we are dong now,” Crome said.

“We are having patients waiting in our emergency departments for admission not only to the ICU, but to our medical and surgical floors,” he said. “This has led to change the way we manage our patients in the emergency departments and that’s not optimal.”

The best advice is to prevent getting infected:

  • If you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated.
  • If you are vaccinated, get a booster.
  • Wear a mask in pubic indoor spaces.
  • Wash/sanitize your hands often.
  • Practice physical distancing (at least 3 feet between you and another person) when you can.
  • Stay home if you are ill and follow-up with your primary care provider as needed.

Regarding the Omicron variant, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported Monday that the predominate strain in Iowa is Delta. The State Hygienic Lab has not identified the Omicron strain as of Dec. 7. They are able to do the sequencing and have started testing samples submitted from labs around the state.

UnityPoint seeing sharp rise in COVID cases, ICUs stretched thin

The number of COVID patients at UnityPoint — Trinity has more than tripled in the last three weeks, and of those, 80% are not vaccinated, said Dr. Toyosi Olutade, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health-Quad Cities.

“The wait time in the ER, you would expect that to be especially high right now, because every bed is occupied and we’re doing our best to reduce admissions,” he said. “If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you need to get yourself tested early, so that you can avail yourself to things like monoclonal antibodies.”

Toyosi Olutade, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health-Quad Cities

The Delta variant remains the overwhelming issue to date, while Omicron is present in the U.S. but a tiny proportion of the infections, Dr. Olutade said.

He attributed the sharp increase in the past two weeks to:

  • Colder weather moving people indoors for gatherings.
  • Slow vaccination rate.
  • Adults needing boosters.
  • Relaxed masking.

With this COVID surge, Trinity’s bed space and staffing are very strained; people who need help may need to travel long distances out of the area to receive care; vaccines are readily available and expanded availability for a younger population, and the Omicron variant’s impact is largely unknown.

Olutade added:

  • We continually evaluate our capacity (beds, staffing and supplies) and adjust our operations accordingly.
  • The decision to postpone elective surgeries is currently a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the provider based on their knowledge of a patient’s health.
  • ICU capacity remains stretched.
  • We are redeploying staff in leadership roles and from our clinics to help in the hospital.
  • We are exploring creative solutions to ensure those who need our help receive it without delay.

Overwhelming majority of cases unvaccinated

Nita Ludwig, administrator of the Rock Island County Health Department, said doctors and public health officials across the country have stressed the overwhelming majority of people who are seriously ill or who have died from COVID have not been vaccinated.

“Dr. Fauci has called this stage a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’,” she said. “I decided to look at recent numbers to prove that the same is true in Rock Island County. Not surprisingly, it is.

Nita Ludwig, administrator of the Rock Island County Health Department

“Looking up the vaccination status of every patient is time-consuming — it took four hours — and not something we can do often,” Ludwig said, noting of 219 recent positive cases from this past weekend:

  • 181 were not vaccinated.
  • 3 were partially vaccinated, which means they had 1 dose of the 2-dose series.
  • 35 were vaccinated, but only 2 had a booster shot that unfortunately is needed because of the high levels of virus circulating in most regions of the country.

The same is true for deaths. Rock Island County has 17 total deaths from Nov. 1 to Dec. 6. Not surprisingly, most were not fully vaccinated:

  • 11 were not vaccinated. That’s 64.7 %
  • 2 were partially vaccinated
  • 4 were vaccinated, but they had serious underlying health conditions

“This little study proves what we and other public health and healthcare leaders have been saying for months – and for hundreds of years, really. Vaccines work,” Ludwig said, urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Visit vaccines.gov to find your shot. RICHD offers walk-in vaccines on Tuesdays (Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) and Fridays (Pfizer). The hours for both days are 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m. Boosters or third doses for immunocompromised people are available on the same day as first and second doses.

Rock Island County Health Department offers vaccines for children ages 5-11 by appointment on Fridays. Pediatric clinics are full until Dec. 17. The link for the Dec. 17 clinic will be posted at 10 a.m. Dec. 15 on the health department’s Facebook page.

Rock Island County Health Department reported two COVID-19 deaths Wednesday: a man in 90s who died at home and a man in his 60s who was hospitalized. The total number of deaths is now 393.

In addition, the health department reported 253 new cases of COVID since its last report on Monday. The total number of cases now is 21,194. Currently, 55 patients are hospitalized in the county with the virus. The average age of newly infected patients is 35.

“While we are in this high wave of virus transmission, we also must continue masking and social distancing,” Ludwig said, noting a mandate from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker requires that everyone 2 and older wear a mask in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

The CDC recommends that everyone age 2 and older wear a mask in counties of high or substantial transmission, which includes almost every county in the country. “We all look forward to the day when vaccination rates are high enough that we don’t have to wear masks in public and when around unvaccinated people. This day will come,” Ludwig said.

Changing pandemic landscape requires changing behavior

Amy Thoreson, director of Scott County Health Department, said we are at the most challenging time in this pandemic in the last year, since the surge from last November.

“Fatigued isn’t a strong enough word for the sentiment in our community right now,” she said. “Nearly two years of vigilance, being told what to do, and having to change your activities is exhausting. 

“We know that we have to live with this virus, which isn’t going anywhere. And we can do that – as a community,” Thoreson said. “But living with this virus doesn’t mean doing nothing. To put it into perspective, we live with the dramatic changes of weather in Iowa – but we make decisions and take varied actions as necessary depending on the weather.

Amy Thoreson, director of the Scott County Health Department

“The weather has changed and now it’s cold. I change my actions by wearing a winter coat, gloves, and hat if needed,” she said. “We are not new to this concept of having to change our actions based on the circumstances before us.

“The landscape of the pandemic has changed. Cases were lower in previous months and many of us had opportunities to take part in activities while not worrying as much about COVID risk, due to events being held outside and case counts being lower,” Thoreson said. “The COVID situation has changed. The case counts are high, hospital systems are strapped, and there is no immediate end in sight.

“We need to change our actions as we do for everything else we encounter. For this, it means masking, even if you’re fully vaccinated,” she said. “It means getting tested when your symptoms feel just like a common cold or what you think it’s your allergies. It means staying home if you suspect any of these symptoms. No meal or family event is worth learning later that you put your grandma, your niece, or your cousin battling cancer at risk due to now being COVID-positive. 

“This won’t last forever. This pandemic will ebb and flow,” she added. “We are in a tight spot at the moment and need to respond accordingly. Just know you’re not alone and we’re working to respond to this pandemic together.”

For more information, visit www.TogetherQC.com, coronavirus.iowa.gov and www.dph.illinois.gov/covid19.