School Staff Asked To Pitch In At Burlington Hospital As COVID Surges

Photo via Great River Health’s FB page

A school district in Southeast Iowa is turning to its staff to help volunteer at the local hospital as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue at a record-breaking pace across the state.

In Burlington, where the public school district and Catholic high school have shifted to online learning, the superintendent of the Burlington Community School District is encouraging staff sidelined by online learning — or those who have time outside of the school day — to volunteer at Great River Medical Center, where he said there was a need for 25 volunteers, according to an email obtained by Starting Line.

“The COVID-19 Pandemic continues to have a profound impact on our entire community. We must be an organization of action, not an institution of inaction,” superintendent Pat Coen wrote in the Nov. 11 email. “We believe that it is necessary and appropriate for the District to support this need. This is a community wide need and we must work together as a community.”

Coen said BCSD “respect and understand that some of you are unable to assist due to personal and family health concerns. Please make the best decision for yourself and your family.”

On Tuesday, Coen said 22 BCSD employees, including teachers and support staff, had volunteered for shifts at GRMC to assist with housekeeping, health screenings and other duties.

“The way I explained it to the school board president — I spoke with him first before we even tried this — we just talked about, it’s the morally right thing to do,” Coen told Starting Line. “We’re in a crisis here, and if we can help, we need to step up and help. But again, only within reason. It’s purely the individual’s choice. We have people that are working monster hours at the hospital, they’re overwhelmed.”

Great River Medical Center did not respond to requests for comment.

At GRMC’s Test Iowa site on Monday morning, the line to be tested for COVID-19 was about 30 minutes long. Russ Rodriguez, vice president of physicians and clinics, recently told The Hawk Eye the Test Iowa site conducted fewer than 4,000 tests in September and 5,615 in October. “Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 9, 3,099 tests had been conducted there,” the newspaper reported.

Tori Kenel of New London is one of many patients to have been hospitalized at West Burlington’s Great River Medical Center due to COVID-19.

On Nov. 12, the hospital’s Facebook page uploaded a 6 1/2-minute video of Kenel describing her experience.

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The video was filmed 28 days removed from the onset of her symptoms. Kenel, 43, said she still experiences fatigue, shortness of breath, neuropathy and, at times, an accelerated heart rate. Kenel said she has no pre-existing conditions.

Through tears, she describes hearing the patient across the hall from her room “beg to go home.”

“He just wanted to go home to die,” Kenel said. “He’d given up. And to hear somebody give up like that, it was heartbreaking.

“When I see people that are not wearing a mask and who are having gatherings and walking around like things are normal, I’m angry,” Kenel said. “I’m greatly disappointed. It’s uncomfortable to wear a mask. I’m not going to like to not be with family during the holidays, but it’s temporary, and those things, if that’s what it takes to keep people from getting sick and especially from dying, one human being is one human being, and they matter whether you know them or not.”

In Lee County, where the 14-day positivity rate sits at 22%, according to the local health department, the board of health this week adopted a position statement on the severity of COVID-19 and the mitigation measures it expects residents to follow.

“The number of COVID-19 positive cases in Lee County and the state is steadily increasing at a rapid rate, posing an immediate threat to the public health of Lee County residents and visitors, and potentially overwhelming the ability of the healthcare system to provide adequate care to those affected,” the statement reads.

The position statement goes on to direct residents to “limit the number of interactions you have with people from outside your household”; avoid gatherings of 10 or more people; stay home if sick with any illness; consider getting tested for COVID-19 if symptomatic or exposed to the virus; frequently hand wash; wear a face mask “every time you leave your home and when you might be within 6 feet of someone from outside your household.”

Michele Ross, Lee County Health Department administrator, during the board of health meeting said, “If you go somewhere and people are gathering and not socially distancing or not wearing face coverings, you are putting yourself in a high risk situation for potential exposure to the virus since we do have substantial community spread,” the Pen City Current reported.

The board of health’s statement comes on the heels of a rare evening address from Iowa’s governor, who on Monday announced new statewide mitigation efforts amid repeated warnings from health care professionals that the state’s hospital system will collapse if the spread of the virus is not slowed.

“If Iowans don’t buy into this, we lose,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said. “Businesses will close once again, more schools will be forced to go online and our health care system will fail, and the cost in human life will be high.”

According to a New York Times analysis of COVID-19 data, Iowa has the third-highest number of cases per 100,000 residents, behind North Dakota and South Dakota.

Van Buren County Hospital is pleading with the community to “band together and act now to lower the transmission rates so we lower the risk of overwhelming our health care systems.”

“From the start of the pandemic, Van Buren County Hospital and Medical Clinics have been prepared for higher volumes, but have remained relatively stable,” the Sunday Facebook post reads. “That environment changed this week. Hospitals are experiencing the highest level of COVID-19 related hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.”

The hospital noted, for now, it “is not yet at capacity and remains prepared to care for those in need.”

In Van Buren County, population 7,044, a total of 333 people have tested positive for the virus and six have died since the first case there was detected in March, according to the Van Buren County Public Health Department. The county is reporting 113 active positive cases and three cases currently requiring hospitalization.

As Bleeding Heartland’s Laura Belin has reported, the Van Buren County death toll as reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health conflicts with the local health department. The IDPH website says four people in the county have died from COVID-19.

The Keosauqua Health Care Center, a nursing home, is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, one of 114 in the state.

In Henry County, the EMS Association took to Facebook last week to warn people that the region’s larger hospitals are at or near capacity.

“This is impacting where we can take patients,” the Henry County EMS Association wrote. “We ask that you please avoid calling 911 or coming to the hospital if you have mild [COVID-19] symptoms in an effort to conserve healthcare resources. There is simply no capacity left and many hospitals across the state are sending COVID patients home that would otherwise be admitted. If you haven’t been taking this pandemic seriously up to this point, now is the time to change your approach.”

Henry County is part of Regional Medical Coordination Center Region 5 in southeast and Eastern Iowa, which also includes Lee, Des Moines, Van Buren, Clinton, Iowa, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Keokuk, Muscatine, Scott, Wapello and Washington counties. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health’s coronavirus website, 371 people in the region are hospitalized with COVID-19 and 102 people are in the ICU.

About 17% of the region’s inpatient hospital beds, or 360 beds, are available, along with 43 intensive care unit beds.


By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 11/19/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

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