Ernst hears new year's COVID concerns at LRH

Tuesday, September 7, 2021
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst visited Lakes Regional Healthcare on Thursday to hear about the community's health needs. Ernst had visited the hospital in July of 2020 and hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would be a thing of the past by this year's visit, but the day's discussion still focused largely on the virus. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

'I had hoped we'd be through this'

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst visited with officials at Lakes Regional Healthcare in July of 2020 — she returned Thursday, and much of the discussion still revolved around the COVID-19 pandemic despite more than a year's time. As with her first visit, every person in attendance wore a cloth face mask to decrease the potential spread of the virus.

"We met a year ago, and at least I had hoped we'd be through this, but we're still here," Ernst said.

Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, said it may be helpful if legislators like Ernst help spread the message that COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be safe. Ernst said the vaccines have indeed been shown to be safe, and she said those who choose not to be vaccinated also need to take steps to safeguard their families and communities from the virus. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

No vaccine for the COVID-19 was available when last Ernst stopped at LRH, and Dickinson County Public Health Director Katy Burke said that when the first vaccines were received in mid-December, few doses were wasted as they were such a critical resource. But by April, local demand had waned and the public health office was declining allocated shipments of vaccine. Burke said Thursday that now people willing to receive the vaccine are the critical resource rather than the vaccine itself.

"The COVID calls went away for a little while, and they're ramping back up with the Delta variant," Burke said.

The most recent statistics posted by Lakes Regional Healthcare show only about 51 percent of Dickinson County residents have been fully vaccinated against the respiratory virus — it was at about 25 percent as of the hospital's previous report on July 2. Burke said she feels there's been an increase in vaccinations out of concern over the Delta variant of the virus — a response she said she feels is appropriate. Burke had previously said state data showed Iowa's current cases of COVID-19 are almost completely comprised of the Delta variant. Ernst agreed.

"What we're seeing in the hospitals right now — those that are hospitalized, those that are suffering the most from these variants — are those that have not been vaccinated," Ernst said Thursday, later noting vaccination has been shown to be safe.

Dickinson County's 65-plus demographic is the most likely to be fully vaccinated with 84 percent having done so, according to the hospital's recent numbers. Residents 18 and older trail behind at 61 percent, with those age 12 and older at 58 percent. At least two more county residents have died of the virus since the hospital's July report — bringing the county's recorded total to 46. Active local cases went from three on July 2 to 50 as of Friday, and confirmed cases of the virus rose by about 115 in that same timeframe for a total of 2,805 local cases since March of 2020. About 2,711 of those cases have recovered so far.

"If you choose to not get vaccinated, you do also need to do those same things to safeguard other people in your household or in your community," Ernst said, noting that may mean wearing masks and social distancing in some circumstances.

Dr. Zach Borus, Dickinson County Board of Health chairman and LRH physician, said an increase in pay and benefits for nursing home aids as well as incentives for healthcare workers in rural areas may help prevent worker shortages in the future. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Nate McCormick, LRH vice president of ancillary and community services, said the hospital's employees are not yet required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He said he felt there had been some lingering concern over the emergency use authorization granted for the vaccine distribution by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC on Aug. 23 formally approved the vaccine developed by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and McCormick said that may ease some hesitation among hospital staff.

Ernst expressed some concern that mandating mitigation — be it vaccination, masks or other measures— may drive some healthcare workers and support staff to find new employment at a time they're needed most. Dr. Zach Borus, chairman of the county board of health and a physician at LRH, indicated healthcare workers, and specifically nursing home aids, should be better paid and receive increased benefits in order to keep shortages at bay.

Borus told Ernst the hospital had four cases of COVID which required hospitalization last week, and he said it pushed the hospital's capacity close to its limits. In addition, Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, said a large number of healthcare providers and public health employees — which she called "the invisible front line" in keeping communities healthy — are expected to retire in the near future. Borus put forward the idea of additional loan repayment or other federal incentives for physicians who choose to serve rural areas. Ernst said her home county of Montgomery has seen similar issues play out as young doctors come to the community but are soon attracted to larger cities with better pay.

"If we expect not only to survive in the rural areas but thrive in the rural areas, we have to have strong healthcare systems," Ernst said. "We can't travel hours away to go to a major metropolitan area and have our basic healthcare needs met, so it is very important that we're attracting quality workers, that we're paying them competitive wages and that we're encouraging our communities to seek that care and really pay attention to their own specific needs and making sure they're wellbeing is protected."

Ernst and the group also touched on how to best counter misinformation associated with the vaccine. Ernst noted some of her own family had become concerned after hearing COVID-19 vaccines may cause trouble with pregnancies. Ernst said she knows that rumor is incorrect and cited a video produced by the University of Iowa on the subject. Tucker Reinders said the nation has in many ways become skeptical of science and many in the public feel the process behind mRNA vaccines was rushed. She stressed it was not as speedy a process as some believe, and she compared the vaccine development to a birthday cake on display at a bakery — mixed, baked and frosted but waiting to see whose name to write on the top. Tucker Reinders went on to say she feels if legislators like Ernst were to help with the messaging about the vaccines, it would help rebuild trust among the public. The senator said she had been part of public service announcements in the past and it may be time to do so again.

"This has been such a challenging time and you've done a magnificent job," Ernst told the group.

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