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Health

State officials report increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations and infections

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State health experts say they expect COVID-19 cases of the omicron variant to peak in late January.

Iowa health officials are reporting large increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and new infections this week, as the omicron variant sweeps through the state.

State health officials announced Wednesday that 792 Iowans are hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 711 last week.

Officials reported the 14-day test positivity rate has increased to 14.9 percent, a sharp increase from last week's rate of 10.9 percent, and they confirmed 20,075 new infections in the past week.

State health officials said Wednesday that 105 omicron cases have been reported by testing labs in 26 counties and that the State Hygienic Lab is reporting nearly 50 percent of samples recently sequenced are omicron.

Dan Diekema, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said he estimates between 80 and 90 percent of cases in Iowa are the omicron variant.

Diekema said even though early report indicate people who get the omicron variant are less likely to be hospitalized than with the delta variant, he said the increase in omicron cases is concerning because of its extremely high transmissibility rates.

"Because the sheer numbers of people infected, even if a lower percentage need to be hospitalized, can result in increased numbers in our hospitals," he said.

As state hospitalizations near 800, health care workers say they're exhausted as they also face high rates of flu and respiratory virus infection hospitalizations this season.

Central Iowa hospitals and clinics took out a full page ad in the Des Moines Register this week, claiming they're overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

Mike Brownlee, the chief pharmacy officer at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said the state's largest hospital is managing around 50 COVID patients now.

"Our limitations right now are are not necessarily COVID patients," he said. 'We have a lot of sick patients that need our care. So we continue to maintain a high census, and we're managing transfers into the organization as well."

Brownlee said he predicts cases will peak in late January and is hopeful omicron infections will be less severe than delta infections.

"It's almost nice to be in the Midwest, because we can watch what's happening in other areas before it reaches us," he said. "But we're also hopeful to see that our hospitalizations do not peak to the levels that they were before with delta.”

Diekema said research has shown so far that the COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the omicron variant and encourages everyone eligible to get vaccinated and get their booster shots, if they qualify.

According to state data, 56.1 percent of all Iowans are fully vaccinated.

Diekema said Iowans should also consider "upping your mask game" to a medical grade mask, which may provide more protection against the omicron variant.

"If you have access to medical grade masks, those are considered to be better source control and also better protection of the wearer than many of the cloth masks — more layers is better," he said.