Worst is coming, governor, hospital officials warn in plea to Iowans to take COVID-19 safety precautions

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Marshalltown hospital

Danielle Gehr/IowaWatch

The entrance to UnityPoint Health – Marshalltown.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday she has approved sending $25 million in CARES money the state received to Iowa hospitals for COVID-19 relief, based on average hospital censuses in September and October.

Reynolds said the money is needed because staff at hospitals are overworked. They also continue to deal with disruptions in their business models that are draining expenses not covered by resources, hospital industry leaders say.

“The last nine months have taken a toll on all of our healthcare workers,” Reynolds said at a news conference. “Long hours, difficult cases and illnesses among co-workers is a daily reality when you work in a hospital or a long-term care facility during at a time like this.”

Reynolds also said the state would launch over three weeks a media campaign in newspapers and on television and radio that urges Iowans to be safe and bring down the virus’ infection rate. Iowans will be asked to use safety precautions, like wearing masks and social distancing.

Reynolds issued no mandates. She said Iowa needs to keep businesses open, children in school and people back to work.

The governor spoke as Iowa’s toll for COVID-19 related deaths surpassed 1,800 and 839 people – 188 of them in intensive care – were hospitalized with the virus, the state’s coronavirus information website showed. Hospital leaders have told Reynolds their facilities do not have capacity to handle much more, she said.

Projections for the state’s hospitals in the Christmas holiday season and beyond show it getting worse.

A model produced by health researchers at the University of Washington projects Iowa will need 248 intensive care unit beds around Dec. 5. The state has 247 available beds. The researchers in Washington state project that Iowa will have more people with COVID-19 needing intensive care than available beds to handle them until around January 10.

Dr. Hijinio Carreon, chief medical officer at MercyOne Central Iowa, said at Reynolds’ news conference that COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are more severe now than they were when the virus started infecting Iowans going into spring. But hospitals are better prepared than they were earlier this year, he said.

“We’re at a critical point in our state’s fight against COVID-19. It’s going to take every Iowan doing their part to get this virus under control,” Carreon said. “I’m asking as an emergency department physician, as a father and as a husband: please protect your families, our community and our healthcare workers by wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings, maintaining physical distancing and using meticulous hand hygiene.”

Carreon also urged people to get a flu vaccine.

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Dr. David Williams, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines, said hospitals have to treat patients with COVID-19 while also treating patients with the usual variety of illnesses they bring to the facilities.

“As a community, you’ve got to take care of my family,” he said, referring to hospital workers. “We’ve been spending eight months taking care of you, taking care of your families, taking care of your friends.”

Clarke County Hospital in Osceola, Iowa. (Suzanne Behnke/IowaWatch)

Dealing with COVID-19 will continue to stretch hospital budgets – a topic on which IowaWatch has done previous reporting. That reporting, in a collaboration with other newsrooms in the country, showed that rural critical access hospitals with 25 or fewer beds already faced a financial crisis.

Three out of every four of the nation’s small, rural hospitals had negative operating income going into the pandemic, the news analysis by IowaWatch, Reveal with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Wisconsin Watch, Side Effects Public Media and the Institute for Nonprofit News showed.

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES PROVIDER RELIEF FUND ALLOCATIONS IN IOWA AS OF
NOV. 4, 2020

That news collaboration also showed income rates at rural hospitals have worsened, from 69% of the critical access hospitals running with negative operating income in 2015 to 75% in 2019. 

Iowa Hospital Association projections earlier this year showed that Iowa’s 118 hospitals, small and large combined, could lose as much as $2.17 billion in revenue by the end of this year. But more than $500 million in aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act staved off large losses. Also, 77 Iowa hospitals were eligible to collect $928.3 million in accelerated and advance Medicare payments to cover expenses last spring, an IowaWatch analysis of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services data shows. The advanced payments, though, have to be paid back.

Reynolds said Thursday the public relations blitz is seeking volunteer safety measures because she thinks Iowans will respond to healthcare workers’ calls for help. “They can be part of the solution,” she said. “It’s who we are as Iowans. We band together.”

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Reaction on the governor’s Facebook page while she was seen in a live feed of her news conference was swift:

“Same old, same old!!!” read one, echoing comments from others as well.

“Governor does nothing. People aren’t wearing mask out here. Mandatory mask law needed now,” read another.

“Thank you for asking the hard question about her practices at rallies!” said another comment, a reference to Reynolds and other Republicans gathering at large campaign rallies leading up to Tuesday’s general election.

But also, there was:

“Use common sense people.”

“All who criticize why don’t (sic) you walk in her shoes and face reality. She has never claimed to be a miracle worker and neither can any of us. Thank God!!!”

“My body. My choice. Mandate or not, my family and I will not be wearing one.”

And: “Well I work in a hospital and work with Covid pts…. masks work. That’s the only thing along with washing hands and distancing that does. Bc I’m not 6ft from my patients

This IowaWatch story was republished by KWWL.com under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.