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U.S. HHS Secretary Visits Polk County To Encourage COVID-19 Vaccinations Amid Growing Hospitalizations

Natalie Krebs
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited Polk County on Thursday to encourage more residents to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

A top health official in the Biden administration visited Polk County on Thursday to encourage more residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 amid a growing number of infections and hospitalizations in the state.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the Polk County Public Health Department as hospitalizations continue to climb statewide for the sixth week straight.

Becerra told reporters that 99 percent of people dying from the virus are unvaccinated.

"I don't know if that fact can be amplified more. But if you don't believe what's going on, go to the hospitals, to the ICU rooms — or worse, go to the morgues and see who are the people who are dying from COVID," he said.

Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy said as of Thursday, 120 people are hospitalized with the virus, an increase of 175 percent in the past three weeks. She said county infections have increased 87 percent since the first weekend in August.

"Polk County hospitals are operating at limited capacity," Eddy said. "Currently, Blank Children's Hospital has canceled elective surgeries and other metro hospitals are monitoring daily cases and canceling some elective surgeries."

Eddy encouraged more eligible residents — those who are 12 or older — to get vaccinated for "the 82,000 kids in Polk County who cannot be vaccinated" as schools start to reopen this week.

"We expect our COVID-19 cases in Polk County will continue to surge since school has started, and individuals are not following COVID 19 prevention strategies, including wearing masks in indoor public settings,” Eddy said.

Natalie Krebs
U.S. Health and Human Secretary Xavier Becerra (right) meets with Polk County Board of Supervisors Chair Angela Connolly (left) and Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy (center). Becerra visited Polk County on Thursday to encourage more residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Eddy said nearly 70 percent of the county's eligible residents have been vaccinated.

The Iowa legislature passed legislation last May prohibiting school districts from issuing mask mandates. The law also applies to city and county mandates that affect private property.

State data released on Wednesday revealed 498 Iowans statewide — an additional 102 people from the previous week — are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest number of Iowans hospitalized since January.

State officials said 79 percent of those currently hospitalized are unvaccinated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93 counties have high levels of community spread and the remaining six have substantial spread. At these levels, the agency recommends everyone wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of their vaccination status.

As the rate of infections have increased across the state and nation, several large employers in Iowa such as UnityPoint Health, MercyOne and Tyson Foods have announced all employees will be required to get the shot by this fall.

On Wednesday, the state reported nearly 1.6 millions Iowans are fully vaccinated, or 48.6 percent of the state's total population.

According to the New York Times, 63 percent of Iowans 18 and older are fully vaccinated, a number on par with the national average.

When asked by a reporter if employers should consider mandating vaccinations for employees, Becerra said they should do what they believe is necessary to protect their workforce against COVID-19.

"I would want to see every employer have a safe workplace, for their employees and for their patrons," he said "And I believe they should do everything the law permits them to do to make sure we're all safe. Because if you're not safe, I'm not safe."