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Two years into the pandemic, COVID continues to weigh on Iowa's health care system

One of UnityPoint's Methodist Hospital's recovery units to try to boost staff morale as they continue to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Natalie Krebs
IPR File
One of UnityPoint's Methodist Hospital's recovery units to try to boost staff morale as they deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases in October 2021.

Two years into the pandemic, the number of new infections and hospitalizations have dropped off in Iowa, but experts warn the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over.

In January, Iowa's omicron cases surged with hospitalizations peaking at nearly 1,000, after numbers had been steadily increasing for months.

But in the past six weeks, hospitalizations have dropped off quickly.

Federal officials reported on Monday, 132 Iowans are hospitalized with COVID.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week just four Iowa counties have high community levels of COVID-19. At this level, it recommends anyone in these counties wear a mask indoors.

Even though COVID numbers are improving in Iowa, experts say this doesn’t mean it’s the end of COVID. It’s more like we’re adjusting to living with this virus.

Experts say we need to keep an eye on the numbers and variants, and there may be a time again when more Iowans should mask up again and take more precautions.

But for now, the state's COVID numbers are looking a lot better than they have in awhile.

Health care workers face challenges moving forward

As COVID hospitalizations and infections continue to decline, health care workers report feeling exhausted and are facing workforce shortages going forward.

Theresa Brennan, the chief medical officer at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said during the pandemic, UIHC has experienced health care workers burning out and leaving their jobs.

She said she worries they won’t come back and that there won’t be enough new health care workers to replace them.

"I also worry a little bit about our next generation and whether they'll decide to go into health care because they may be reluctant," she said, "because the health care providers at the beginning of the pandemic were really putting their lives on the line."

Others are concerned about the state's 89 rural hospitals.

Bill Menner, the executive director of the Iowa Rural Health Association, said before the pandemic about 20 percent of the state's rural hospitals were at some risk of closure.

He estimated that number to be higher now, especially once federal pandemic support dries up.

"Those hospitals that were already on the edge — how are they positioned to survive going forward, if there aren't those sorts of infusions of federal grant dollars that there have been," Menner said.

The state's public health workers have been deeply affected by pandemic stress and pressure as well, said Lina Tucker Reinders, the executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association.

She said the pandemic exacerbated a lot of public health issues, such as obesity rate, binge drinking and racial disparities in access to health care. So in addition to dealing with pandemic stress for the past two years, public health workers have a lot of work ahead of them.

But Tucker Reinders said she's cautiously optimistic about the future of public health as enrollment in public health programs has increased during the pandemic.

"At the same time, we're seeing record numbers of enrollment in public health degree programs, and not just at the graduate level, but undergraduate public health degree programs as well," she said. "And so our challenge is to keep those students."

COVID's impact will goes beyond health care

The pandemic has also deeply impacted other issues the state was facing even before COVID — such as a shortage of child care options across the state and resources for children's mental health.

Back in 2020 — before the pandemic took hold — lawmakers had slated addressing Iowa's child care shortage as a legislative priority.

That got put mostly on hold when the Gov. Kim Reynolds signed her first public health emergency proclamation in March 2020.

In the meantime, the pandemic has made Iowa's child care problem worse, but the Iowa legislature is back to addressing this issue this year.

Several bills currently making their way through the legislature, including a bill that would allow those receiving government child care assistance to work out deals with local providers who don't take government assistance and another bill that would allow teens to work at child care centers without adult supervision.

Many health care providers and experts are also expressing concern over children's mental health.

The number of kids reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic increased significantly.

State health officials said last week that they are really concerned over an increase in child suicides recently in central Iowa, some involving younger children.

UIHC's Brennan said she feels the pandemic has had a huge impact on children in particular, pointing out that two years is much different for an adult than it is for a child.

That's a big part of their life," she said, "and a lot of their normalcy was affected to a greater degree than it has been for many of us as adults."

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter