COVID-19 winter spike hits record high case count

Tama County sees school impacts, nursing home outbreaks amid 33 percent positivity

Over the past 22 months rural agencies like Tama County Public Health have been at the forefront of coordinating the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though their role looks different than it did a year ago, much remains the same for healthcare professionals as they seek to both care for and educate the public about a disease that has evolved and has become politicized in ways few saw coming. Today the agency assists with vaccine clinics, coordinating efforts with schools and nursing homes and providing test kits to residents. – Contributed photo

As the COVID-19 pandemic incomprehensibly nears the year three milestone, positive case counts related to the most recently discovered omicron variant have been surging through the state.

In Tama County, the seven-day positivity rate has reached an all-time high of 33 percent according to data from Tama County Public Health collected on Jan. 18.

Tama County Public Health Executive Director Shannon Zoffka said it’s difficult to put a finger on the exact record high number for positivity in Tama County since the tracking window shifted from 14 days to seven days over the course of the past 22 months. She also expects the 33 percent figure to be under the true positive rate for the county given that at-home test kits are now being used but are not being reported alongside tests coming in from clinics and hospitals.

In Tama County since March 2020 there have been a total of 3,884 positive cases and 82 deaths related to COVID-19.

Over the past seven days there have been 262 new positive cases according to Tama County Public Health (TCPH) data, while the percentage of the population that is vaccinated has remained around the 58 percent mark for several weeks.

What has not changed over the past 22 months is how the pandemic has impacted the community, with the effects felt first and foremost by those most vulnerable.

According to TCPH, four out of the county’s five long-term care facilities are currently in outbreak status. The Iowa Department of Public Health (IPDH) defines a long-term care outbreak as a facility with three or more active infections among staff and/or residents.

Previously during the pandemic, IDPH tracked and provided public information about long-term care facility outbreaks. That information is no longer public and it is not clear which of the five facilities in Tama County located in Tama, Toledo, Gladbrook, Traer and Dysart are in outbreak status.

“I think for people that aren’t working directly with it, they almost forget that COVID-19 is still a looming issue, and requires a lot of time,” Zoffka said. “It’s on the forefront of what we’re dealing with everyday. It’s like it’s been forgotten. And for us, it’s not that way. It’s still really there. And I can’t imagine what it is like for health care workers in a hospital setting or even in our clinics or nursing homes. They are just swamped.”

COVID active in schools

Schools in the county have also felt the impact of the recent spike in COVID-19 positivity.

The Meskwaki Settlement School announced last week the district planned to move to 100 percent virtual instruction from Jan. 13-24 due to a spike in the number of students testing positive for COVID-19, and the number of students exposed and assigned to quarantine.

“We are aware of three long term care outbreaks in Tama County,” TCPH said in a Facebook posting. “Please take steps to protect our vulnerable populations. Mask, stay home when sick, get vaccinated, and avoid large gatherings.”

South Tama Schools reported in each of its three buildings double-digit active cases with students and staff combined as of Jan. 13.

STC Elementary: 6-10 active cases

STC Middle School: 11-15 active cases

STC High School: 20-25 active cases

On Tuesday, Jan. 11, the Union Community School District in northeast Tama County announced both its away high school basketball games and wrestling meet – scheduled to take place in New Hampton – were canceled.

“Between injuries and illness, wrestling had too many out to travel,” Union Athletic Director Michael Bruns told the North Tama Telegraph in a text message.

The Union girls and boys basketball teams had been scheduled to travel to Ackley on Tuesday evening. Bruns said the AGWSR school district contacted Union and requested a change of date due to illness and injuries on their part.

Mental health and pandemic despair

For other vulnerable populations such as those seeking or requiring mental health resources, the COVID-19 pandemic has created barriers and made a lasting impact that will take more effort to overcome. Resources that were already scarce in rural Iowa have become difficult to obtain and daily life stressors that can trigger symptoms within mental illness have only intensified over the past two years of pandemic time.

Erin Gumm is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor working out of a private practice in Toledo (Spero Counseling Services). She said trying to connect her clients with things like speciality care has become more challenging throughout the pandemic.

“Group therapy for example tends to be one of the most effective treatments for really difficult to treat mental health disorders,” Gumm said. “Those things already require you to drive to Des Moines or Iowa City but now clients are seeing waitlists up to two or three months just to get in. And that’s discouraging to see when they might be in crisis mode.”

Gumm also sees a shift in how young people are transitioning into adulthood through the current time while the world deals with an ongoing public health crisis.

“For young people it’s no longer like a life stage transition, it’s an emerging adulthood that’s a five to 10 year process now,” Gumm said. “It’s hard to find out who you are when the rest of the world is in chaos.”

As her work continues on a day-to-day level and she counsels and aids people from all walks of life, Gumm works to help people from becoming stuck or paralyzed by despair.

“The difficulties people experience day-to-day have been intensified and it’s leading to increasing despair, specifically diseases of despair like substance abuse issues and suicide,” Gumm said. “Suicide is on the rise in our culture, and my concern is it will continue to impact our community more and more.”

The answer to this broader feeling, as Gumm puts it, is to look toward creative expression and outlets like art, craftwork and music to help cope.

“If we’re looking for an antidote to despair, it begins with creating, doing and celebrating together,” she said.

If you are feeling suicidal or are thinking about hurting yourself please dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The hotline is a 24-hour suicide prevention service available to anyone in suicidal crisis.

Tests and mitigation

From a practical standpoint, one recent development in the ongoing effort against the COVID-19 pandemic is the launch of a website offering up to four free at-home COVID-19 test kids per household.

The website www.covidtests.gov and the kits have been paid for by the federal government and were launched on Jan. 19 as a broad effort to combat the spike of the omicron coronavirus variant that has overwhelmed hospitals and schools throughout the country.

Tests through the federal website should ship via USPS between seven and 12 days after they are ordered.

Kits are also available at many local pharmacies, as well as at www.testiowa.com/en.

Tama County Public Health frequently holds COVID-19 vaccination clinics. Everyone aged five years and older is eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine to help protect against COVID-19 per the CDC. Call TCPH for an appointment or for more information regarding the COVID-19 vaccine at 641-484-4788.