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The Scarlet & Black

COVID-19 cases surge in response to delta variant; vaccination rates still stagnant

Graphic by Hannah Agpoon.

COVID-19 cases rose significantly in Poweshiek County and across the state of Iowa this August. There were 41 new documented cases in the county during the last week of August, compared to eight in the last week of July. Although the case counts remain significantly lower than during the spike in positive tests in fall 2020, the increase in cases threatens to raise what has been a flatter trend line in the last few months.

Poweshiek County has a full vaccination rate of 51 percent, lower than Iowa’s overall vaccination rate of 65 percent. The county has had a higher positive test rate than the Iowa average, with 12.6 percent positive compared to 9.2 percent.

Russ Behrens, the Grinnell city manager, emphasized that when it has come to keeping case counts low, “people who have elected to be vaccinated have done a big part.”

The vaccination rate in Iowa has remained relatively stagnant since the end of May, only climbing by approximately 10 percent of the population, compared to a nearly 30 percentage point increase between February and April. In Poweshiek County there was a 30.2 percent vaccination rate in May, and since then rose by about 20 percent of the county’s population, a greater increase in the percentage vaccinated than in the rest of the state.

The Poweshiek County Department of Public Health (PCPH) holds regular vaccine clinics on Wednesdays in addition to other recurring public health clinics. They administer Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines. Walmart has also been administering vaccines on a walk-in basis, in coordination with PCPH.

For those who do not attend the clinics at PCPH, over-the-phone registration for vaccination is available. However, the voicemail of the Unity Point Health Grinnell Family Practice Clinic states that vaccines are only available “to specific groups at this time.” Callers are encouraged to visit the Unity Point Health website for more information.

In the first week of May 2021, the county declined part of its weekly vaccine allocation due to decreased demand from its residents. Behrens says he believes that the population of Poweshiek County who have not been vaccinated remain unvaccinated by choice, rather than due to issues of access or availability.

To the best of my knowledge the only barrier to being vaccinated is people’s willingness to do so,” Behrens said. “Unfortunately, the vaccination rates are a bit predictable based on the politics of the county,”

Shaunna Callaway, director of public health for Unity Point in Grinnell, wrote in an email to the S&B: “Vaccine hesitancy is unique to each individual, but some common trends we’re seeing are concerns related to safety and efficacy, preference for natural immunity, media misinformation and personal choice to wait-and-see.”

Behrens also stressed that the COVID-19 case count has not risen to the level it had been before in 2020 and early 2021, but that conditions could change overnight. He said he commends the students, staff, and faculty of Grinnell College who elected to receive the vaccine, while alluding to the College’s vaccine requirement policy.

Unity Point Hospital and Grinnell College are among the few employers in Poweshiek County that mandate vaccinations. The city of Grinnell doesn’t, but the majority of its employees are vaccinated. The city will continue to monitor case counts among its employees to see if they get worse, but Behrens is confident that they are not heading in that direction.

Behrens stressed the importance of vaccination for Grinnell residents in light of the recent uptick in positive cases, given the large population of residents over the age of 85.

The Mayflower Community, Grinnell’s assisted living facility, is not accepting visitors due to COVID-19. “I can’t believe people are living their last days unsure if they will see their loved ones again,” said Behrens. “This may continue for another winter, spring, and summer”.

Kellie McGriff, Mayflower associate director, was not available for comment.

Callaway urged each individual to seek reliable medical information from reputable sources and consult their healthcare provider with any questions or concerns.

Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine remains the leading public health prevention strategy to protect yourself and others against COVID-19. We know this has been a trying time for everyone continue to check in on each other and yourself.”

Update 9/18/2021: Updated with current COVID positivity and vaccination statistics.

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