Less than half of Iowa’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and health officials across the state are bracing for the consequences as the Delta variant gains steam.
Two Iowa health officials said vaccination will be the key to curb the worst of those outcomes.
Dr. Daniel Diekema, a clinical professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Iowa, said the country is in the midst of another wave, and the biggest question is how big will it get.
“It’s simply because we haven’t quite reached the level of immunity that’s needed to prevent the spread of the Delta variant and then other transmissible variants that may follow behind it,” he said.
The pattern of the disease continues to show that COVID cases in unvaccinated populations are more likely to lead to serious illness and death. Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said 99 percent of the people dying from COVID were unvaccinated.
Hospitalizations and deaths nationwide are up from when they’d dropped in mid-January.
‘It’s hundreds of times worse if you get the virus’
For people who received both vaccine doses, the virus may still infect them, but the immune system fights it faster. Evidence so far shows that vaccinated people who do get infected also suffer from fewer long-term effects of COVID like brain fog and heart or lung scarring, though scientists are still studying that.
“Wherever there’s a concern for the vaccine, it’s hundreds of times worse if you get the virus,” said Dr. Eli Perencevich, a professor of epidemiology and internal medicine at the University of Iowa. “We know that everyone’s going to catch COVID if they’re not vaccinated. There’s going to be a lot of heart disease. There’s going to be a lot of brain fog and long COVID among all those who don’t get vaccinated.”
Diekema and Perencevich said they have concerns about the fall when people return to crowded, indoor spaces. Especially because mitigation measures like mask-wearing and social distancing are eased in most places.
‘Young person’s disease’
The Delta variant of COVID is the dominant variant in Iowa and the United States and it is more transmissible. Meaning it spreads more easily because infected people shed more of the virus.
Delta also seems to hit children harder because of how easily it spreads and because children under age 12 can’t get vaccinated yet.
Because so many people over age 65 have been vaccinated, Perencevich said, “We’re seeing this across the country that it’s now a young person’s disease.”
He said it’s hard to tell whether Delta appears differently in young people because it’s different or simply because it’s impacting a different population.
“It’s more dangerous for kids, not because it’s different,” he said. “But it’s because we dropped our protection.”
The American Association of Pediatrics released recommendations on Monday that all children, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in schools this year.
That runs counter to current CDC guidelines which only suggest masks for unvaccinated children.
‘Get vaccinated as soon as you can’
For the most part, Perencevich and Diekema said they anticipate the spread to happen in smaller communities with lower vaccination rates.
According to state data on Monday, Johnson County has 58.1% of its population vaccinated, Iowa’s highest percentage. Meanwhile, Lyon County in the northwest corner has the lowest percentage at 29.2%. Most other counties hover around the 40-50% range.
Local public health officials said they’re ready to handle surges the same way they have been for the past 18 months.
“The messages are still the same. And so this variant is just the latest one that we’re having to deal with,” said Tyler Brock, deputy director of the Sioux City-based Siouxland Public Health Department.
Brock said the health department is confident the most vulnerable people in the county have received their vaccines, but the department does wish the vaccination rate was higher because it’s probably not enough to protect against a surge of cases.
State data shows 39.6% of Woodbury County is vaccinated, as of Monday.
But Brock said he was confident any surge wouldn’t measure up to what we saw last year.
“It’s the same worry as any variations of this virus would be,” he said.
The director of the Fort Dodge-based Webster County Health Department issued the same advice to get vaccinated as soon as possible as the best line of defense against COVID and its variants.
“Monitoring is the same, protocols are the same, we’re still providing guidance, answering those questions, helping any residents out that might need it,” said Kelli Bloomquist, public information officer of Webster County Health Department.
Bloomquist said she’s observed a lot of people continuing to wear masks when they’re out in the community.
State data shows 44.8% of Webster County is vaccinated, also as of Monday.
“To me, it’s a pretty simple message,” Diekema said. “Which is if you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated as soon as you can.”
Perencevich said because of the way the virus spreads and how viral diseases work, everyone who isn’t vaccinated will eventually be infected.
“Everyone is going to have to have an antibody,” he said. “And so you’re either going to get COVID or you’re going to get vaccinated.”
by Nikoel Hytrek