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Doctors running Des Moines intensive care units plead with Iowans: Take coronavirus more seriously

Tony Leys
Des Moines Register

Doctors running Des Moines’ intensive care units say they're witnessing the consequences of many Iowans’ lax attitudes toward the coronavirus.

“We’re seeing people suffering that don’t need to suffer; people dying that don’t need to die. This didn’t need to happen,” said Dr. Jason Mohr, who is the lead physician for UnityPoint Health's intensive care units at Iowa Methodist Medical Center and Iowa Lutheran Hospital.

The intensive care units have been refilling over the past few weeks as the virus surges again. 

During the first coronavirus spike, in spring, most severely ill patients were elderly or worked in jobs that put them at particular exposure to the virus. Many adults in their 30s or 40s, with no known risk factors, are now being brought to the intensive care units because they're stricken with COVID-19, said Mohr and his counterpart at Des Moines' MercyOne Medical Center, Dr. Brad Wilcox.

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Dr. Jason Mohr, an Iowa Clinic physician, leads the intensive care units at Iowa Methodist Medical Center and Iowa Lutheran Hospital

Mohr and Wilcox are among 20 critical-care specialists who signed an open letter pleading with the public to take the pandemic seriously. Organizers said the signatures represent nearly every full-time doctor at intensive care units operated by UnityPoint Health, MercyOne, Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines and Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames.

The letter notes that Iowa coronavirus infections and hospitalizations dropped in June after businesses and residents followed significant social-distancing requirements during the spring. But the danger spiked again after the state reopened most businesses and people resumed many normal activities. Polk County's jump in cases has been particularly steep.

“We are troubled by the path that we are on and what will lie ahead for all of us,” the doctors' letter says. “We ask all of you to look out for each other and limit social gatherings. The use of masks is absolutely critical in controlling the spread of this virus.

“Sometime in the future, we will be better and life will feel more normal,” the doctors' letter says. “For now, we must make some small sacrifices so that moment arrives sooner rather than later. This is something that can only be accomplished by everyone being a part of the solution, including our business community and government. Fight this with us, we all deserve the best from each other.”

Dr. Bradley Wilcox is the lead doctor for the intensive care unit at MercyOne Medical Center in Des Moines

In a joint interview with the Des Moines Register, Mohr and Wilcox said the doctors signing the letter were expressing their own views. They weren’t representing the hospitals where they serve.

The number of Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 has more than doubled, from 118 on June 27 to 248 on Wednesday, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. The Iowans hospitalized Wednesday included 77 being treated in intensive care units.

Iowa's hospitalization number remains substantially below what it was in early May, when it topped 400, but the rebound is troubling, the doctors said.

Mohr and Wilcox said the UnityPoint and MercyOne intensive care units in Des Moines have been filled to what is normally their capacity, although they’ve been able to add beds in hospital wings that are usually used for other purposes.

They said many COVID-19 patients have to stay on ventilators for weeks, which is unusual and can leave patients with serious, long-lasting problems. Some of those patients are probably included in official tallies of "recovered," because they've been able to leave the hospital. But many won't be fully healed for months.

"'Recovered' is a very gray area," Mohr said. 

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The doctors said it’s no surprise that more Iowans are being sickened by the virus lately, given how many people appear to be ignoring advice on how to protect themselves, such as by wearing masks and staying out of crowds. Wilcox said that even though he spends his workdays in a unit filled with infected patients, everyone there is taking extensive precautions, so it doesn't seem overly dangerous. 

“I feel safest when I’m in the hospital — much more than when I’m out and about,” he said.

Mohr and Wilcox said they would support a government requirement that Iowans wear face masks when they’re in public places. That view is shared by many other health care professionals and groups, including the Iowa Medical Society, the Iowa Public Health Association and Iowa’s former longtime state epidemiologist. Gov. Kim Reynolds has encouraged Iowans to wear face masks in situations when they can’t stay 6 feet away from others. But she has declined to mandate them and has said Iowa counties and cities have no authority to enforce their own mask mandates.

Across Iowa and the nation, polls show people’s politics have often colored how they view masks and other attempts to curb the pandemic.

Mohr and Wilcox said they were disappointed to see the public’s response become politicized.

“This shouldn’t be you’re for this person or you’re against this person,” Mohr said. “We should all just be for each other.”

Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at tleys@registermedia.com or 515-284-8449. 

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