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Health Care Workers Struggling As COVID-19 Cases Rise In Iowa


There's a sobering increase of coronavirus cases across the United States. Once again, health care workers are struggling to care for all who are sick. Iowa's Governor Kim Reynolds announced a state of emergency this week, and that includes a mask mandate for large public events, as well as limits on various types of public gatherings. Still, Governor Reynolds on Tuesday said that the state is open for business as hospitals there brace for a deluge of patients.

Suresh Gunasekaran is CEO of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, which treats patients throughout the state. And in a recent op-ed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, he pleaded for the public to comply with the mandate, saying Iowa hospitals are experiencing the worst chapter of the pandemic so far. He joins us from Iowa City. Thanks so much for being with us.

SURESH GUNASEKARAN: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Mr. Gunasekaran, what happened in Iowa?

GUNASEKARAN: Oh, I don't think it's any one thing. But if we wanted to call it one thing, I think it's pandemic fatigue. You know, there have been different times throughout this pandemic where you've seen an increase in COVID infections across Iowa. There was a peak in April and May. There was another peak in July and August. And each time, a peak led to Iowans taking this more seriously and us flattening the curve and then the curve subsiding. I think this peak that we're in right now is the highest peak. And I think it reflects a year-long fatigue with this. And I think that the public is tired of complying with these safety measures. And I think that that's what's really changed.

SIMON: Tell us about your hospitals right now. What's going on? What can you see?

GUNASEKARAN: Overall, at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, we're seeing an increase in the total number of COVID patients that we have in house. And we're continuing to see an increase in the number of serious transfers that we have to take from other Iowa hospitals. Overall, we're doing pretty well right now, but I am really concerned about the future.

SIMON: And what would you say to the public at this point, as you addressed it in your op-ed?

GUNASEKARAN: I think that there is for the first time a light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccines - we've been on the front lines of offering those clinical trials. And we know firsthand that the data looks really promising. We know that a vaccine is, in fact, right around the corner. And so since we know that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it is so much more important right now for the public to follow the safety measures. We know that it's a really important time of the year for friends and family to get together. But this year, we want the public to make a different decision - by not gathering, by connecting remotely and only enjoying the holidays with the people that you live with.

SIMON: Mr. Gunasekaran, what would you say to those Iowans and people listening to us? And perhaps you've already had to answer this question - people who say, look; Thanksgiving is important. It's the one time of the year I see my brother, my sister, my son or daughter who comes home.

GUNASEKARAN: It's a really tough question, Scott - that the pandemic has taken so much away from us. But by the same token, what I would say to those families is, I think that one way to show your friend or your loved one how much you love them is to make this sacrifice this year and to make sure that they stay safe because unfortunately, here at UIHC, we have done a significant amount of contact tracing around our own patients and our own employees. And I want to tell you something, Scott. The data shows that this disease is mostly being spread from person to person not by strangers, but by friends and family that you know, that you love, that you want to see, that are asymptomatic at the time that you spend time with them but ultimately succumb to the disease later. And so this is why it's so important.

SIMON: Suresh Gunasekaran is CEO of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

GUNASEKARAN: Good to be with you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.