The presence of COVID-19 in Dubuque County was confirmed by local public health officials Thursday afternoon, marking the first appearance of the virus in the tri-state area.
Officials from the City of Dubuque and Dubuque County health departments made the announcement during a press conference held moments after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds confirmed that six more Iowans had tested positive, bringing the statewide total to 44.
Patrice Lambert, executive director of the Dubuque County Health Department, said she was unaware if the person who tested positive in Dubuque County, a person aged 41 to 60 who is resting at home, contracted the disease via travel or community spread.
“That info was not shared by the (Iowa Department of Public Health),” she said. “We do not know if we will get that response or not. But we know the treatment and isolation orders will be the same.”
Mary Rose Corrigan, Public Health Specialist for the City of Dubuque, told members of the county’s Health Care Preparedness Coalition, which includes many area health care providers, that the UnityPoint Health-Visiting Nurse Association will take the lead on tracing the individual’s contacts with others.
“If you have patients concerned that they may have been in contact with the person, you can assure them that the VNA will be contacting them,” she said. “This is what we do with normal communicable diseases.”
Local officials said access to testing kids still is limited.
“The people are concerned about that, and so is the health care community,” Corrigan said. “We all wish we had more tests.”
Corrigan said every county in Iowa was allotted a limited amount of COVID-19 testing kits. Right now, health care providers are only testing people who meet certain criteria.
“Because of the limited supply, they had to use strict criteria on who they test based on the risks, such as travel (and) symptoms,” Corrigan said.
Tests are being reserved for people who recently visited places like China, Europe or Iran, or those who have been in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
People experiencing colds and who do not meet the criteria are being urged to stay home, self quarantine and rest.
“If you think you may need health care, call first,” Lambert said. “There may also be options for you to talk to your health care provider at home first.”
A COVID-19 test is via nasal swab, Corrigan said. Using a special kit, the specimen taken from the swab is sent to a state hygienic lab.
It only takes about three hours for the lab to receive the results after processing the kit, but it may take longer for patients to be notified due to the volume of tests being performed, Corrigan said.
“How quickly we will get results depends on the volume of testing they are getting and how quick we get it to the labs,” she said.
Hospitals and clinics that currently have kits available are MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center, UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital, Grand River Medical Group and Medical Associates Clinic.
In order to safeguard staff and patients, officials with MercyOne and UnityPoint said they have implemented visitor restrictions.
Finley has banned visitors altogether, said Bryan Pechous, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs.
“The decision to restrict visitors was difficult and made only after careful consideration as we witness schools and churches restrict gatherings and follow social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Corrigan said as the virus spreads, more hospitals will urge patients to delay non-essential appointments and procedures.
“That’s part of our usual planning,” Corrigan said. “That’s part of our hospital preparedness plan to do that very step.”
Local officials and U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, addressed fears about supply shortages.
“We’re hearing about those needs for protective equipment or medical supplies,” Finkenauer said during a phone-in town hall. “We have a supply chain problem even on the swabs to perform the test.”
Teri Goodmann, assistant city manager for Dubuque and a member of the county’s Public Health Incident Management Team, said the problem is hitting home locally.
“In Dubuque County, we too see the possible ongoing shortage of medical supplies as a critical need,” she said. “We’ve encouraged our health care professionals and clinics to communicate directly with our emergency medical team so we can get that information to the state Department of Public Health and to you (Finkenauer) at the federal level.”
TAKING OUT FEAR
An online meeting of the county’s Health Care Preparedness Coalition was held following the press conference.
Tilly Frommelt, of MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center, said officials are attempting to ease minds.
“We’ve been practicing one common message in hopes that it reflects practice, to take some of the fear out of this,” she said. “That includes no wasting of (personal protective equipment), trying to answer questions the best we can and meet the needs of the community.”