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Polk County Encourages Residents To Wear Masks As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Increase

Pam Menegakis
Polk County health officials are urging residents to wear masks in indoor public settings as coronavirus infections increase.

Polk County health officials are urging residents to wear masks in indoor public settings and get vaccinated as soon as possible as the number of COVID-19 infections continues to surge.

Officials said Wednesday that Polk county has experienced a 65 percent increase in new infections in the past seven days, while the state has experienced a nearly 170 percent increase.

State health data released Wednesday showed COVID-19 hospitalizations in Iowa increased to 355 this week, up from 201 the previous week.

The last time state officials reported hospitalizations to be above 350 was early February.

Meghan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist who works with the Polk County Health Department, said county hospitalizations went from about 40 last week to 70 this week.

"This is not a doubling we want to see. If we continue to double, then we will reach the capacity that we saw last November in two weeks," she said.

Polk County officials said 95 percent of admitted COVID-19 patients in the Des Moines metro area have not been vaccinated.

County Health Department Director Helen Eddy said the department has made progress with vaccinations lately, offering incentives like free food and state fair tickets.

She said the department vaccinated nearly 4,500 people last week — the highest number since early June and said 66.5 percent of eligible Polk County residents have been fully vaccinated.

But Eddy said she's concerned about the next few weeks.

"The combination of large public gatherings and schools reopening in less than two weeks is the perfect recipe for accelerated COVID-19 transmission in Polk County," she said.

Schaeffer said the state fair roughly could have as many as 600 people with active infections a day on average.

"If you consider each of those people will spread to two to four individuals, whether it was in their family, their household or even at the fair, that's a pretty big exponential spread," she said.

When a reporter asked if Schaeffer would attend the state fair this year, she responded "absolutely not."

"Sorry if that was a little too strong, but no," Schaeffer said. "My whole family's vaccinated, and I don't go on public without a mask anymore, either.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 of Iowa’s 99 counties have substantial to high community spread. At these levels, the CDC recommends all residents regardless of vaccination status wear masks in public indoor settings.

Iowa enacted a law in May that makes it illegal to require masks in schools and prevents cities and counties from enacting mask mandates that affects private property.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter