As community health nurse Michele Cullen made the rounds of call-in meetings last week with government officials, emergency management supervisors and health care representatives concerned about the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases in Clinton and Jackson counties, her message was sobering.

“Our health care systems are increasingly becoming taxed,” she said Wednesday during an emergency meeting of the Clinton County Supervisors just before the supervisors voted to close all county buildings to the public except for appointments. 

Her message echoed other local hospital administrators, doctors and nurses who are pleading with area residents to wear masks and follow other precautions to stem the rise of the pandemic. Positivity rates for individuals tested were 29% in Clinton County and 32.2% in Jackson County as of Sunday.

Cullen warned that local hospital census numbers for coronavirus patients were well above those seen just a few weeks ago at Genesis East in Davenport, which had 71 patients on Thursday compared with a usual average of 30. Mercy One in Clinton had 19 compared with its usual number of eight. Finley and Mercy One hospitals in Dubuque, as well as the Jackson County Regional Health Center, were all seeing increased numbers. While none of the hospitals were at capacity, Cullen said medical staff is being spread precariously thin.

“The alarming thing is the rate of illness in the health care staff at the hospitals,” she said during another call on Thursday, this one with the Jackson County local emergency planning Covid-19 committee.

“It’s not that the beds aren’t there; it’s that the staffing is limited,” she said.

Jean Hayes, chief nursing officer at JCRHC, said the departments there are small, so when just a few people are out ill in one department, it is difficult. 

“If two or three people in a five-person department are out, it’s hard,” she said. The inpatient daily census at JCRHC is usually three, but it’s been running about 10 lately. 

A big issue is finding beds for more seriously ill patients who need to be transferred to hospitals in Davenport, Dubuque or Iowa City for more specialized care, Hayes said.

Shad Patterson, director of the JCRHC ambulance service, said COVID-related calls have doubled or tripled in the past two weeks. Patients who need to be transferred to a different facility for more specialized care are being sent to wherever there is room. 

 “The Emergency Department is having trouble finding ICU (intensive care unit) beds,” Patterson said. “What people need to know is that if they are sick enough to go to an ICU, they may not go to the hospital of their choice.” 

He said he had two patients recently who had to be transported to Cedar Rapids – not their choice nor that of their families – because no other hospitals would accept them.

Genesis Health System last week asked people not to visit the emergency room of their local hospital to be tested for COVID-19 unless they have severe symptoms. Instead, they should call their primary care physician. If they can’t reach them or don’t have one, they should call the Genesis COVID-19 hotline at 563-421-3820 for information on how to connect with a provider for COVID care.

“The emergency department is not the appropriate site for COVID testing. It should not be your first step if you have mild symptoms, as do about 80% of patients with COVID,” said Dr. Kurt Andersen, senior vice president of physician operations and chief medical officer for Genesis.

As of Sunday, Jackson County had confirmed 190 new cases since Nov. 9; Clinton County had added 511. 

Dubuque County supervisors last week voted unanimously to mandate face coverings be worn in public. In Jones County, which had the highest 14-day average positivity rate in Iowa last week, supervisors voted Nov. 5 to “strongly encourage” residents and visitors to wear face coverings while in public and around individuals who do not reside in their household. 

The Jackson County Board of Supervisors was set to discuss a face covering recommendation and/or mandate at its Tuesday meeting. Chairman Mike Steines said last week he was talking to city officials throughout the county and gathering information from health officials and neighboring counties about possible measures.