Over 90% of Iowa's hospitalized COVID-19 patients are not vaccinated, hospital officials say

Nick Coltrain
Des Moines Register

Almost all of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 since the spring have been unvaccinated against the disease, spokespeople for three of Iowa's largest health care systems said.

At the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, upward of 90% of patients admitted due to COVID-related illness since April have been unvaccinated, spokesperson Laura Shoemaker told the Des Moines Register. About 95% of patients hospitalized at UnityPoint Health's central Iowa facilities since March 2021 were not fully vaccinated, spokesperson Macinzie McFarland said. And at MercyOne's Des Moines hospitals, 97% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 were not vaccinated, spokesperson Clara Johnson said in an email.

The COVID-19 vaccine has been widely available to anyone 16 and older since April 5. Those 12 and older have been eligible since May 10. And the vaccine seems to be working to reduce the severity of the disease: Hospital officials said that vaccinated patients who tested positive for COVID-19 did not need admittance to the intensive care unit.

Evidence shows that "the vaccine protects the majority of individuals who have been vaccinated from getting the virus and in particular lowers the risk of poor outcomes for those who do become infected,"  Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said.

At UnityPoint Health, 14 of its COVID-19 patients since March were fully vaccinated, and most of them had health conditions leading to weak immune systems. All were older than 60, and none was in the ICU, McFarland said. Shoemaker described a similar situation for the University of Iowa's vaccinated COVID-19 patients. MercyOne did not have data showing how many vaccinated patients needed ICU care immediately available, Johnson said.

Confirmed coronavirus infections, which cause the disease COVID-19, have been rising nationally and in Iowa. On Monday, there were 23,600 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationally, up from 11,300 on June 23, according to John Hopkins University data and reported by Associated Press.

Iowa does not track vaccination status among COVID-19 positive residents

The Iowa state government does not track the vaccination status of people who test positive for COVID-19, Ekstrand said. The records exist in databases that are not connected. She did not respond to an email asking why they weren't connected to each other.

State health officials have heard from health care providers that they occasionally have had vaccinated people testing positive for COVID-19, Ekstrand said.

"We expect to see a small percentage of infections among people who have been vaccinated but whose immune systems didn't quite learn to have a strong enough protective response," Ekstrand said. 

She urged Iowans to take the vaccine as soon as possible, and specifically noted the rising prevalence of the more infectious delta variant. She said at the beginning of July that Iowans should assume the variant is circulating in their communities.

More:What is the delta variant of COVID-19? Does the vaccine protect against it? Here's what you should know

Less than half of Iowa's residents, 46.2%, are fully vaccinated according to state data. Vaccine administration in Iowa has dropped by more than 90% from the height of its demand in the early spring. More than 50,000 doses were administered in a single day in early April, and several other days came close to the mark. In July, no day has topped 4,000 doses administered in a day.

More:Iowa State Fair releases updated COVID guidance: No mask rules, no capacity limits

Doctor says U.S. may soon see 'ICUs full of 30-year-olds'

Dr. James Lawler, a leader of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, told the Associated Press that the delta variant of the virus poses a risk to younger people.

“The descriptions from regions of the world where the delta variant has taken hold and become the predominant virus are pictures of ICUs full of 30-year-olds. That’s what the critical care doctors describe and that’s what’s coming to the U.S.,” he said.

He added: “I think people have no clue what’s about to hit us.”

Iowa reported 213 positive tests on Monday, up from 74 on June 23. The seven-day total of positive tests, 980, is higher than it has been since it topped 1,000 positive tests at the end of May, but sill far from the 33,000-plus positive tests in a week Iowa experienced during its November wave.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 77 people hospitalized with COVID-19, up from a recent low of 46 concurrent hospitalizations on June 24. That figure last topped 100 on May 29, and peaked at more than 1,500 in mid-November. A quarter of the people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Iowa are 18 to 39 years old.

More:Iowa to stop reporting COVID activity data daily, citing transition to pandemic 'recovery'

Iowans ages 18 to 39 accounted for more than half of positive tests, 53%, over the past week, according to Iowa Department of Public Health data. Nearly a third of all the positive tests, 31%, belonged to Iowans ages 18 to 29.  

The younger Iowans are, the less likely they are to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data. Although everyone 12 and older is eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccine, COVID-19 vaccination rates by age are:

  • 22% of 12- to 15-year-olds
  • 32% of 16- to 17-year-olds
  • 35% of 18- to 19-year-olds
  • 37% of 20- to 29-year-olds
  • 47% of 30- to 39-year-olds
  • 53% of 40- to 49-year-olds
  • 60% of 50- to 59-year-olds
  • 71% of 60- to 64-year-olds
  • 81% of people 65 or older

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at ncoltrain@registermedia.com or at 515-284-8361.