A sudden spike in seasonal flu cases, on top of rising COVID-19 cases, calls for the University of Iowa Iowa Hospital to take extra precautions to avoid overloading the health system.
Last week, the University of Iowa Health Care had more than 150 positive tests for seasonal flu – a number typically seen only in December and far more than the single-digit positive flu cases hospitalized in last year’s exceptionally mild flu season were found. Doctors generally test for flu more aggressively early in the season to assess its prevalence, but don’t test every suspicion throughout the season.
The early spread gives cause for concern that there will be greater transmission in the community as the cold drives more people into the house, especially with the upcoming holidays, Theresa Brennan, UIHC’s chief medical officer, said at a press conference on Monday.
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“Once it spreads, it can be a really big deal for our workforce for our community in general,” she said. “And when you add the fact that we are still in a spike in COVID, that could really have an impact on our community and health resources.”
Most people who tested positive for flu by UIHC were “very symptomatic” and would likely have been tested in non-COVID years instead of just being diagnosed as flu-like. She doubted they were flu cases that were only found based on additional testing due to COVID-19.
Flu is a top 10 cause of death in a typical year, although COVID-19 has killed far more Iovans in the year and a half than it was in the state. flu can be particularly vicious to young and old. Brennan cautioned, however, that the biggest consequence this season could put an even bigger strain on an already scarce healthcare workforce.
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“If influenza hits the community, a certain percentage of our workers will get the flu from their presence in the community and then be unemployed,” Brennan said. “And while it doesn’t take as long as people tend to have COVID, it does take several days … patient care.”
The warning comes as COVID-19 is rising again in the state after falling. In some places, like Dubuque County, the number of active cases is as high as it was during the November 2020 surge.
Brennan said hospital officials are “anxiously” watching COVID-19 activity and hoping it will not peak as badly as it did last year.
“It’s cold now and people will be inside and everyone is sick of it,” said Brennan. “People are hungry for human contact. And that’s why people are likely to be less strict when it comes to gathering, masking, distancing themselves than they were last year. “
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Although people are vaccinated, a lot of Iowans aren’t, she said, and boosters weren’t approved until Friday for people lying more than six months after completing their first round of injections. As of Monday, about 61% of Iowa residents had at least one dose of vaccine, and 56% are considered fully vaccinated.
She urged Iowans to get vaccinated, including booster shots, wearing masks in public spaces, maintaining social distance and washing hands frequently – tips from health experts are effective containment measures against COVID-19 and the flu. She also encouraged Iower, who can do quick tests in front of large gatherings.
Nick Coltrain is a policy and data reporter for the registry. Reach him below [email protected] or at 515-284-8361.