Staffing, vaccinations worry SIRMC’s top doctor

Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center Chief of Medicine says he’d like to see unused vaccines freed up for boosters

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

BURLINGTON – Dr. Michael McCoy said he’s not concerned about having sufficient beds for another outbreak of the pandemic. He is however very concerned about having enough people to staff them adequately.

In an interview with Pen City Current on Tuesday, McCoy said his biggest concern is staffing. And then his next biggest concern is vaccination rates.

“Either we’re going to get the vaccine, or we’re going to get COVID. There’s not a lot of in between,” McCoy said.

The stern message follows on the heels of a report from the Polk County Public Health Director who told the Des Moines Register essentially the same thing.

“If you remain unvaccinated, you will get COVID,” Helen Eddy told the Register. “The only question is how sick you will become.”

McCoy said the unknown of how deeply the Delta variant will penetrate the population, coupled with the short staff of not just SIRMC campuses in Burlington and Fort Madison, but around the region and nation, paints a concerning picture for the next few months.

“Health care providers have already gone through one very stressful pandemic, and some of them retired if they had the chance, or suffered major burn out, or are having difficulties working too much and not having enough colleagues to give them a break,” McCoy said.

“So in addition to what’s going on with other industries with staffing shortages, for health care workers there is that add-on.”

He said the only way out of the current staffing issue is for people to get vaccinated. McCoy said the virus isn’t going to go away, but if the area had a higher rate of vaccinated people the impact to the health system would be reduced.

The health system is moving forward with the goal of keeping patients, the public, and the hospital staff safe.

“We are continuing to use (Centers for Disease Control) and (Iowa Department of Public Health) guidance to do that. We still try to be really careful and I know it’s a dynamic moving as information comes in,” McCoy said.

“CDC and IDPH guidance changes and sometimes those changes are hard to make sense of. It’s very fluid and we get direction that seems different than it was yesterday… and that’s because it is.”

Before the announcement came that Fort Madison Community Hospital and Great River Medical Center we’re joining into one entity, both hospitals had relaxed some of the additional pandemic mitigation efforts. But McCoy said they are back to meeting weekly with the Incident Command and are scheduling COVID committee meetings again, both things they had stopped as numbers diminished.

He said the system is looking again at policies that were in place during the fall because vaccination rates are steady at just under 40%. Those were numbers that places like Missouri were seeing before the hospitals began to get overrun again.

“There were a lot of places in Missouri where vaccinations rates were lower and they were getting overwhelmed. To think we aren’t going to see the same thing when our rates are similar…that just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“We will tighten up again as the variant and it’s prevalence rate dictates – to keep everyone safe. Could we get back to where we were in the fall? We could, but we just don’t know yet. We’re taking policies we were using in the fall, and haven’t used for a while, and dusting those off and taking a look again.”

Iowa’s coronavirus data site coronavirus.iowa.gov is showing 158 patients currently hospitalized with a primary or secondary diagnoses of COVID. McCoy said that number was in the 70s two weeks ago.

“It’s doubled in the last two weeks and that’s exactly what we’re predicting.”

The site also shows Lee County at 38% of people fully vaccinated and Des Moines County at 39%.

McCoy said statistically the vaccine has been one of the most effective vaccines he’s seen.

“That’s been a nice surprise. I’m convinced that this is a highly effective vaccine.”

He also said some vaccines are already being wasted and he believes there should be guidance to allow those overstocked vaccines to be used as boosters for anyone that wants them.

McCoy said there should be a priority for anyone who hasn’t received one to get one first, but if vaccines are close to being destroyed there should be an avenue to use them for people who want a booster. There is no time requirement between initial vaccine and getting a booster.

“Pfizer has already come out and talked about boosters increasing antibodies and immune levels, especially for those immunocompromised, which will help with future strains,” McCoy said.

“We have to waste doses now and as soon as we get some guidance from CDC and IDPH, I would love to be able to give those to people who want a booster as long as we’re not taking it away from those unvaccinated who want one.”

Wearing a mask in public even if vaccinated will also help slow the spread. He said he continues to wear a mask in public not solely for his own health, but for those who can’t get vaccinated or his grandchildren who are too young to get vaccinated but are more exposed with new variants.

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