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A 'Battle' In Black Hawk County: Surging Coronavirus Cases Take Their Toll

Madeleine King/IPR file
While other counties consider re-opening parts of public life, Black Hawk County is continuing to see a surge in cases that officials say is taking a toll on families and threatening the safety of health workers.

As Gov. Kim Reynolds takes steps to re-open parts of the state, confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Black Hawk County continue to spike. Local public health officials said that as of Monday, the county had 1,346* documented cases, accounting for more an a fifth of Iowa’s total cases.

Local officials warned Monday that the surge in coronavirus cases isn’t over yet. Even as 77 other counties consider a phased re-opening of restaurants and retails operations, Black Hawk County officials warn their residents are fighting a “battle” against the highly contagious virus, which is clearly taking a toll.

“One thousand three hundred and forty-six [cases]. That’s 1 percent of the population in Black Hawk County,” said County Public Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, her voice filling with emotion. “So we need everybody to work together so we can fight COVID-19 together.”

“Please do not give up. By staying home you are a saving life,” she added. “When you are at home you are safe and you are saving a life.”

By staying home you are a saving life [...] When you are at home you are safe and you are saving a life. - Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, Black Hawk County Public Health Department

The spike in cases was expected, following a round of targeted testing of employees at a Tyson meatpacking plant in Waterloo, which county officials say ignited the outbreak. Egbuonye has said that based on contact tracing, 90 percent of the county’s cases are linked to the Tyson facility. The company finished testing all of the employees of its Waterloo plant over the weekend, and Egbuonye said some of the results are still being processed through the State Hygienic Lab.

County Sheriff Tony Thompson voiced his frustration with Tyson, saying that early battles against the virus were lost because precautionary actions taken by businesses weren’t sufficient.

“I hear corporate Tyson talking about how this community COVID spread is impacting their operations. And it makes me want to jump up out of my chair to say their operations have negatively impacted the COVID spread in my community,” Thompson said.

“We should not be sitting where we’re sitting today,” he added.

As the outbreak ripples through the community, it’s taking a toll on patients, family members and health care providers.

Sharon Duclos, co-medical director of Peoples Community Health Clinic in Waterloo said it’s been devastating for family members who have to communicate with their gravely ill loved ones over video calls.

“You see the impacts on the families who have to sit at home and can’t be with their loved one, who have to FaceTime as somebody is going through one of the most traumatic experiences of their life,” said Duclos, her voice filled with emotion. “I’ve never seen that before, ever in my life as a physician. I would’ve never thought that we would have to isolate people in order to help protect the bigger good.”

As I encourage my staff to come to work every day and be compassionate and help people, it's my biggest fear is...I'm going to lose one of them. And that I have to carry on my shoulders.' - Sharon Duclos, Peoples Community Health Clinic

Duclos cried as she spoke of the risks that health care workers themselves are facing.

“As I encourage my staff to come to work every day and be compassionate and help people, it’s my biggest fear is…I’m going to lose one of them,” Duclos said, her voice breaking as she spoke. “And that I have to carry on my shoulders.”

Thompson said he's tired of hearing the "ignorant comments" and seeing the "dumb" actions he says are putting the rest of the community at risk, particularly first responders. 

"I think about those hospital workers, those ER workers, that show up every single day knowing they're going into the lion's den, knowing they're going into the heat of battle, every single day, when there are people out there that simply do not take this seriously.

Officials from MercyOne and UnityPoint Health said they are seeing more health care workers test positive for the virus; transmission among providers seems to be occurring both through community spread and through interactions with infected patients.

“We are concerned about the safety of our staff and our providers,” said Matthew Sojka, Chief Medical Officer at MercyOne Northeast Iowa. “Our staff have worked very hard, our physicians and nurse practitioners, PAs, have worked very hard to protect themselves, to protect other patients. But it’s a very scary time for them.”

Sojka added that MercyOne is considering marshaling staff from hospitals elsewhere in the state to go to Black Hawk County to help meet the need.

In the meantime, Daniel Glascock of UnityPoint warned that even as neighboring counties consider re-opening parts of the economy and civic life, the virus is not likely to respect political boundaries like county lines. Even in rural areas, it only take a “spark” to set off another outbreak, he warned.

“There’s nothing magical about the county borders,” said Glascock, who serves as a regional vice president for UnityPoint. “If it gets out of Black Hawk County…well, it already is.”

Editor's note, 3:55 p.m. on April 29: On Wednesday, the Black Hawk County Health Department notified us that it had discovered a discrepancy in the number of reported cases in the county, and that the actual, updated number as of Wednesday (April 29) is 1326.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter