OTTUMWA — The region is seeing an increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19, particularly in the small county of Monroe.
According to data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, in the last week the Courier’s six-county coverage area added 38 new cases. The data updated Wednesday showed that 18 of those were in Monroe County. Another nine were in Wapello, seven in Davis, three in Appanoose and one in Jefferson.
The test positivity average in Monroe County since last week was 32% according to state data — by far the highest in Iowa. The current level of virus activity is on-par with what was seen in late April and early February this year.
What's driving the increase in cases? The amount of people in the county still unvaccinated is one answer offered by Monroe Public Health Administrator Kim Hugen. The other is that the pandemic is simply not yet over.
"People are getting to the point where they have gotten rid of masks and think that this is all over, and unfortunately it's proving that it's not," Hugen told the Courier Wednesday.
Hugen said her staff is looking into the new cases to determine whether those individuals have been vaccinated or not. She believes the "vast majority" of new cases are in unvaccinated folks.
Particularly with the Delta variant of the coronavirus, vaccinated people can still contract the virus, though data shows those cases are less severe. About 99.5% of COVID-19 deaths in the last five months were of unvaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the uptick in cases is not near the levels seen at prior peaks in the pandemic, the emerging trend in many of the Courier’s area counties is one of growth. Federal officials now warn of the "pandemic of the unvaccinated," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said last week.
In terms of vaccinations locally, the numbers are trending in another direction. State data show 46.6% of Iowans are considered fully vaccinated, which ranks the state 22nd in the nation, according to data from the CDC.
While Hugen said her office is seeing a few more calls for vaccines as news of case growth has reached the public, vials of vaccines are hardly flying off the shelves.
"We've had a few more phone calls than typically, but we're talking maybe 10 vaccines a week," Hugen said. "We're not seeing big numbers like we had initially. I'm hoping that will increase some."
With just 29% of its population having received all required doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, Davis County is the state’s worst county for vaccinations thus far.
Devyn Pitlick, the public information officer for Davis County's public health department, said the office is working to connect with trusted community members to understand what's driving vaccine hesitancy.
As part of a public information campaign the office is launching for its citizens, the department posted a YouTube video Wednesday emphasizing that getting the vaccine is an individual person's right and choice. However, they emphasize data that more than 1.5 million Iowans have safely received the vaccine and encouraging citizens to become vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them.
While rates are higher in other area counties, the highest rate of vaccination is Jefferson with 38.5% fully vaccinated — a figure that only ranks 82nd.
Wapello County ranks 85th in the state, with about 38.4% of its citizens fully vaccinated.
Vaccines are currently available to anyone 12 years old and older.
Concerns over vaccinations grow as new variants emerge, particularly the more transmittable Delta variant that the CDC say make up an estimated 83% of new cases in the country.
In the last three weeks, the state’s 14-day rolling total of new cases has doubled. About 41% of the new cases this past week are in Iowans under the age of 29, the least-vaccinated age demographic in the state.
That trend isn’t followed in Monroe County, however. Nearly two-thirds of the new cases are in adults between the age of 50-59 years old, and 11% are in adults over the age of 80.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, spoke on the U.S. House floor Wednesday to encourage Iowans to become vaccinated.
"It has been a pleasure to see constituents in the entire country have a new sense of freedom and begin to return to normal," she said. "But fully engaged living is being threatened by the Delta variant, which is causing increased hospitalizations and deaths, especially among the unvaccinated."
Miller-Meeks has long encouraged COVID-19 vaccines, and as a doctor has traveled across her 24-county district to help administer the vaccines.
Individuals interested in receiving the vaccine can contact their health care providers, pharmacies or local public health offices. Or, they can also consult with state and federal resources. Iowa offers a COVID-19 hotline that can help schedule appointments at 211, providers can be found at vaccinate.iowa.gov/providers.
Texting your ZIP code to 438829 (or 822862 for Spanish) is a federal service that will reply with three locations with vaccines in stock. The Department of Health and Human Services also has established a website for vaccine information at wecandothis.hhs.gov.