FAIRFIELD – Several local officials and public health authorities held a press conference Thursday afternoon to alert Jefferson County residents to the changing nature of the pandemic and what residents can do to mitigate its spread.
The conference, held over Zoom, featured officials from the city of Fairfield, a Jefferson County supervisor, the director of Jefferson County Public Health, the county’s emergency management coordinator, the CEO of Jefferson County Health Center and a doctor at the health center. They took turns giving an update on their respective jurisdictions and areas of expertise, but their message was the same: the pandemic in Iowa has never been worse than it is now, so residents must be vigilant about following the appropriate public health guidelines.
Precautions include wearing a mask, sanitizing hands and socially distancing by staying 6 feet away from other people whenever possible.
Dr. James Trent, who practices medicine at Jefferson County Health Center, said health officials feared COVID-19 cases would spike in May, but instead that spike appears to be happening now. He noted that Iowa is in the top four states in per capita infections.
“Our health systems are being overwhelmed, and we’re experiencing unprecedented mortality rates,” he said. “If you are ill, please stay home. And if you have severe symptoms, you should be seen by your provider to see if you need to be tested or need further treatment.”
Jefferson County Public Health Administrator Chris Estle said the county has 334 active COVID cases, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of the virus’s reach. She said some people could be infected who have not gotten tested, or they could have tested negative only to discover symptoms later, but did not go in for a second test.
Thus far, one person in Jefferson County has died from the virus, although Estle noted that there is a lag in reporting deaths because the state has to process death certificates.
Jefferson County Health Center CEO Bryan Hunger said neighboring hospitals are reporting they have reached capacity and are considering converting wings of their hospital into COVID areas. He said they worry about not having enough staff available to provide care to everyone.
The positive case rate has exploded in Jefferson County. In September, it was very low at just 1.43 percent of tests coming back positive. Hunger said that last week showed 36 percent of tests came back positive.
Since the pandemic hit Iowa in March, Jefferson County Health Center has seen one to three COVID patients at a time, but that number is now nine. To ensure the health center has enough beds available for future COVID patients, it has reduced elective surgeries and has stopped accepting patients who are not acutely ill. It has closed its cafeteria and gift shop to the public, and stopped all non-urgent internal meetings, converting them to Zoom meetings.
Jefferson County Emergency Management Coordinator Brett Ferrel said there are over 1,500 people hospitalized for COVID in Iowa. In the Southeast Iowa region including Jefferson County and 13 other counties, nearly 400 people are hospitalized, and 102 are in intensive care.
“Please do your part by following the guidelines so we can get back to a new normal at some point,” Ferrel said. “Our major concern is overwhelming health care facilities, and we’re starting to see that.”
Jefferson County Supervisor Daryn Hamilton said he will introduce a resolution at the next supervisors’ meeting Monday to require masks in all county offices open to the public. He is asking for supervisors to meet via Zoom instead of meeting at the courthouse. The courthouse remains open to the public.
Fairfield City Administrator Aaron Kooiker noted that City Hall is closed to the public Monday, though city officials remain reachable through phone and email, and residents can use the drop box at City Hall to pay utility bills. He said meetings of the City Council, Board of Adjustment and Planning and Zoning Commission will continue in person, but attendees will wear masks.