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Iowa health care systems report testing shortages, delays amid rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections

Natalie Krebs
IPR File
Emergency staff at Methodist Hospital in Des Moines have seen an increase in COVID-19 patients. The West Des Moines-based health system announced it will no longer allow walk-in COVID-19 testing for people without symptoms.

The state’s largest hospital is asking Iowans to get vaccinated and take extra precautions against COVID-19, as the new infections and hospitalizations continue to rapidly increase fueled by the highly transmittable omicron variant.

This week, state officials announced statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations are at 923, the highest number since late 2020.

Suresh Gunasekaran, the CEO of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, called this a "critical time" for Iowans to take extra precautions such as limiting gatherings and wearing masks in public.

"This is not something that we're going to have to do for the entire pandemic, but making these decisions differently over the next four to six weeks can be really critical to supporting the health care system here in...Iowa for all Iowans," he said.

Gunasekaran told reporters on Thursday that the health care system is under stress due the rapid increase in infections and demand for testing, along with an increase in staffing shortages related to these infections.

"We've never seen this many health care workers who have been infected or have to take care of loved ones that are infected," he said.

Despite early reports that the omicron variant is less likely to cause severe illness then the delta variant, Gunasekaran said the fact that the omicron variant is so transmissible has made it dangerous.

"Even though the risk of mortality may be lower for any individual, the risk to the entire healthcare system is still just as high as it was before," he said. "And so it's still causing workforce shortages. It’s still causing other types of care to be delayed."

As the number of new reported infections has increased, so has demand for testing across the state.

Gunasekaran said the demand has caused a backlog for testing, resulting in patients at times having to wait several days for a test, but he said the turnaround period for getting test results still remains short.

On Thursday, West Des Moines-based UnityPoint Health announced it will no longer offer walk-in COVID-19 testing to people who are not experiencing symptoms, due to the increase in demand at its emergency rooms and urgent care clinics.

The health care system asked asymptomatic people to use at-home testing kit available at pharmacies, local health departments and through the state's Test Iowa program.

UnityPoint said those with symptoms should try to make an appointment for a test with their primary care physician before going to an urgent care clinic.

Gunasekaran urged more Iowans to get vaccinated, as the majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and there is no significant evidence that a prior infection will give someone equivalent protection to the approved vaccines.

According to state data, 56.4 percent of all Iowans are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Additionally, he said said the nationwide shortage of COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatments is causing health care systems to prioritize certain patients for treatment.

"What we have for those Iowans that are still hesitant about taking the vaccine is so many Iowans have taken the vaccine and so many of them have benefited from them," he said.

"But now that it's been a year and we have FDA approval, and we have so much other data. We hope that Iowans will continue to lean in and continue to do this."

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter