First COVID death in BV County, case numbers continue to climb

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The first COVID-19 fatality in Buena Vista County was reported Tuesday, as the case total continued to climb.

Public Health officials did not release any information on the individual, including age or location.

“As a smaller county, we can’t give details - I don’t know a lot of details. We are not doing our own surveillance now, what we find out is coming from others,” said county Public Health coordinator Pam Bogue, noting that the high number of local cases make it difficult to even keep track of where patients are being treated.

She said that a lack of information being made public is because of fear of breaking HIPAA patient confidentiality law. “It’s hard to say anything in a small community. In a bigger city, you could release more details without people being able to figure out who the individual is.”

She said that COVID-19 patients from the county are being sent to intensive care units in Sioux City, Fort Dodge and Omaha - “wherever there’s a bed available at the time.” As of Tuesday, Sioux City health officials had said none of their BV County patients were on ventilators.

For the northwest Iowa region, 94 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, 45 of them requiring ventilators to help them breathe. In the region, 75 ventilators are available.

Another 42 COVID cases have been confirmed in the county Tuesday, for a total to date of 852, though Governor Kim Reynolds claimed during a news conference Tuesday that the county’s cases were on the decline. Of confirmed BV cases, 92 are recovered. Over 4,600 have been tested - as the governor noted, about one in every four county residents.

Buena Vista County’s rate of positive cases is now higher than any of the previous hot spots in the state, including Woodbury and Polk counties - nearly 43 cases per 1,000 residents.

Locally, more cases are being seen outside the high-risk groups than at the state level. Bogue said 43 percent of the cases are in the age 18-40 group and 35 percent in the 41-60 age group - almost eight of every10 cases are among adults 60 and under. Bogue theorizes that this may be because of the age range of the workforce at Tyson Foods where many of the cases have been reported, and in part because the younger age groups are more easily able to travel to a site for testing.

TYSON TEST RESULTS

Tyson announced Tuesday that testing is complete at its two Storm Lake plants. Of more than 2,300 employees tested, 591 have been found positive for COVID-19 - more than 75 percent of those cases having shown no symptoms. Most of the cases were tested at a private mobile clinic set up on Tyson property in Storm Lake, with 58 determined by Test Iowa or workers’ own health care providers. According to Tyson, 186 workers have completed their required absence and can return to work.

The pork plant has been idled early this week for sanitizing, and is scheduled to reopen Wednesday. Team members who cannot come to work because of illness or childcare issues related to COVID-19 will continue to qualify for disability aid.

“We are thankful for the efforts of Tyson Foods’ management and team members to ensure the safety of employees as they continue in the best manner possible to process food for our country,” said Keri Navratil, City Manager for Storm Lake. “We know that the efforts to protect Tyson team members also protect their families and, in turn, our other residents.”

BV County Public Health has also praised Tyson efforts. Bogue said that every time she has spoken with nurses at the plants, new protections have been added, some going back two months or more.

Tyson officials said that as in Storm Lake, they are finding high numbers of asymptomatic cases in their other plants around the country where testing is taking place, prompting the company to make public its testing results.

The company is prioritizing large-scale testing in communities with a higher prevalence of COVID-19, officials said.

Team members at Tyson’s Storm Lake facility have access to daily clinical screenings, nurse practitioners and enhanced education. Tyson has also put in place a host of protective steps that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19. These include symptom screenings for all team members before every shift, providing mandatory protective face masks to all team members, as well as a range of social distancing measures, including physical barriers between workstations and in breakrooms.

“Our team members are essential to helping feed the nation, and their health and safety come first,” said Rick Retzlaff, Complex Manager for Tyson in Storm Lake. “Disclosing our testing results will help better protect our team members and help provide the wider Storm Lake community with the information it needs to stop the spread of the virus.”

NURSING HOMES SEEM SPARED

Unlike elsewhere in the state, no outbreaks have been seen in long-term care facilities in Buena Vista County. On Wednesday, Wel-Life in Alta was scheduled to be tested, the last of the county's nursing homes. No positive cases were reported among residents of Methodist Manor in Storm Lake or the nursing home in Albert City. The remaining facility in the county, Good Samaritan in Newell, arranged for private testing while the others are done by a strike force of area public health officials and nurses. Staff at Faith, Hope & Charity home for special-needs children in Storm Lake were also tested by one of those teams.

“We know the isolation is hard on these people and their families. Statewide, a good percentage of cases are from long-term care facilities. It is a testament to the employees who work in our facilities locally that we aren’t seeing those outbreaks in our care facilities,” Bogue said.

TEST IOWA SCHEDULING

Reports are being heard of difficulties scheduling testing at the Test Iowa site in Storm Lake. Local officials say the schedules are done in three-day blocks. BV County Emergency Management Director Aimee Barritt advised the public that if they are told the testing is full, to call back the next day to try again to schedule. She has asked the state to increase the local testing capacity by 20 percent to make up for a significant number of no-shows.

The Test Iowa site at the Storm Lake High School parking lot is currently scheduled to continue operating weekdays until June 12.

PLEAS FOR PRECAUTIONS

Meanwhile, local public health officials are calling for continued precautions.

“The virus is so contagious, entire households of people are all testing positive. It spread exponentially - one person can cause a lot, lot of illness if they do not isolate,” Bogue said. “People need to stay vigilant. If they are ill or have been exposed to someone who is ill, they need to stay home until they get the okay to be out in the community again.”

Currently people who have had direct exposure to someone testing positive are being told to stay home for at least 14 days, those who have tested positive are required to isolate for at least 10 days which should include three days without symptoms.

“In a lot of cases, it’s way more than 10 or 14 days,” Bogue said. “We are seeing people who have had COVID symptoms for a long time - they just can’t seem to shake it.”

“I wish there was more we could do. It is a very, very contagious thing. All we can do is try to slow it down until a vaccine is developed.” Some feel that herd immunity will develop as more people are exposed, but even if that is the case, it may not end the threat, the local Public Health leader feels.

Storm Lake Mayor Mike Porsch also continues to call for people to take precautions and stay home when possible, even as the state opens up for business.

“BV County is bucking the trend” of reopening, he said at a council meeting this week. “We have had a significant climb in cases from just a week ago, and we’re seeing 10 to 30 new cases a day. A good portion are from Tyson, but there is a considerable spread across the community, it is not just an isolated situation.

“It’s hard to sit at home, but we need to stay vigilant. The only thing we can really do to protect ourselves is to social distance. If you are positive, even if asymptomatic, you must stay home. I’m asking, again, that the community work hard to do what we can to limit the virus over the next couple of weeks.”

LONG-TERM OUTLOOK

“The pandemic is not over, and there is much more to do,” Governor Reynolds said in a news conference Tuesday, as the state legislators returned to Des Moines. Reynolds said the state revenue losses due to COVID concerns - estimated at $65 million - is “manageable.”

“If there is immunity, we don’t know how long it will last with this particular virus. We just don’t have those answers yet - in six months, the immunity may not still be there,” BV Public Health’s Bogue said. “Down the road all of this information will be figured out, but in the heat of it, there are a lot of things we don’t yet understand. My gut feeling is that COVID-19 is something that isn’t going to go away any time soon.”

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