COVID, flu hits Des Moines, Polk County schools before winter break

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As COVID-19 activity increases across the state, Polk County schools are seeing an increase in student and staff absences due to respiratory illnesses.

Polk County Health Department officials say during the four-week period between Nov. 20 and Dec. 20, schools in the county experienced high levels of student absences due to locally circulating viruses, including influenza, COVID-19 and RSV.

On Wednesday, right at the start of winter break, two schools reported absenteeism rates of more than 10%. In addition, more than a third of the county’s schools, 35 percent, had 5 percent or more of their students absent due to illness, local public health officials said.

It comes as respiratory viral activity ramps up across the state, leading to a spike in new infections ahead of the year-end holidays.

“This increase, combined with low vaccination rates and holiday gatherings, could lead to more severe illness and increased strain on health care capacity in the coming weeks. This increase in respiratory activity may also affect truancy rates,” said Madisun VanGundy, public health communications officer for the Polk County Health Department. “And every year we also see an increase in respiratory cases after the holidays. More people coming together means more germs shared and spread.”

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Over the course of this four-week period, the majority of school days – around 58% – saw at least one school reporting 10% sickness absence. Some schools have had 10 percent absences for several days in a row, local public health officials say.

A total of five Polk County schools reported student absences exceeded 10 percent for “one or more school days” between Nov. 20 and Dec. 20.

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What is the current activity of COVID-19, influenza and RSV?

Iowa had a 20 percent positivity rate for new COVID-19 infections as of the week of Dec. 9, the most recent data available from the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.

An increase in the spread of COVID-19 was also detected locally through the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority’s surveillance system, which measured the concentration of COVID-19 in the wastewater of more than 500,000 metro residents.

Iowa is at an “average” level for new hospital admissions for COVID-19, with 345 people hospitalized in the state for the coronavirus as of Dec. 9, federal health data show. This is an 8% increase from the previous week and a 58% increase from the previous four weeks.

Polk County Health Department officials also say Iowa hospitals have seen a 250 percent increase in flu hospital admissions and a 60 percent increase in RSV admissions across all age groups in the past four weeks.

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Are school districts in the Des Moines area seeing an increase in illnesses?

In both Des Moines and Waukee schools, sickness absences have reached 10 percent in recent weeks.

Iowa school districts are required to report to county health departments when the school absentee rate is 10% or higher due to illness.

On Dec. 15, nine Des Moines schools reached the 10 percent threshold, said Phil Roeder, spokesman for Des Moines Public Schools. Absences of students and employees due to illness are monitored separately.

“However, DMPS has not had to close schools or cancel events due to illness,” Roeder said.

Waukee South Middle School recently had one day where 11 percent of absences were related to illness, said Kayla Choate, district spokeswoman.

The Southeast Polk and Urbandale school districts had no schools with absences reaching 10 percent due to illness.

Have any schools in Iowa closed recently due to illness?

Earlier this month, the Janesville Unified School District closed for two days and canceled events after 127 of approximately 500 students and 13 staff members were absent, according to the district’s Facebook page.

During the closure, school district officials trained online to allow staff time to clean and disinfect district buildings.

What is Iowa’s vaccination rate for COVID-19, flu?

So far this year, Iowa’s COVID-19 and flu vaccination rates have been low compared to previous years, prompting local public health officials to encourage Iowans to seek the shots soon.

Only 2.9 percent of Iowa children between the ages of 6 months and 17 years had an updated COVID-19 as of Dec. 2, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, 27.8 percent of adults 18 and older in Iowa received the new vaccine.

In Polk County, only 12.4 percent of residents are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations, the county health department says.

As of Monday, 30 percent of the state’s population had received a flu shot, according to state data.

Twenty-six percent of Polk County residents have received the latest flu shot so far this year, down from the roughly 40 percent average flu shot rate among county residents over the past 6 years, local health officials say.

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The decline in vaccination rates against COVID-19 is no surprise, said Lina Tucker Reynders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association. As COVID-19 becomes part of the routine seasonality of respiratory viruses, it is not surprising that interest in getting the vaccine is beginning to approach the typical uptake of other seasonal vaccines, such as the flu shot.

“We’ve always had a problem with flu vaccine rates every year being lower than we want to see, so it doesn’t surprise me that COVID is similar,” Tucker Reynders said. “If you’re not looking for a flu shot and if you’re not worried about the flu, it makes sense to be less worried about a COVID vaccine or possibly contracting COVID-19.”

Polk County residents can find free or low-cost vaccines through the health department’s vaccine locator, immunizepolk.com. Iowans can also find other vaccine appointment options through vaccines.gov.

Are flu and COVID vaccines required for Iowa schools?

Students are not required to get a COVID or flu shot to attend school.

Do Des Moines Public Schools offer vaccine clinics?

Although Des Moines Public Schools does not offer vaccine clinics, they do have health clinics at Hoover High School, 4800 NW Aurora Ave.; and Kurtz Opportunity Center, 1000 Porter Ave.; said Melissa Abbott, the area’s chief of health services.

The clinics offer mandatory and optional vaccines, including flu and COVID-19.

Families can make an appointment by contacting their local primary care clinic or the nurse at their child’s school, Abbott said.

Are school districts still testing for COVID-19?

Several metro Des Moines school districts said they are not handing out COVID tests.

At the height of the pandemic, the Waukee Community School District had COVID tests available, but that practice has been discontinued, said Kayla Choate, district spokeswoman.

Des Moines Public Schools, which closed its last COVID-19 testing site in October 2022, is not providing testing.

The tests are available through the U.S. Postal Service and the Polk County Health Department, said Phil Roeder, district spokesman.

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“We encourage everyone to follow basic measures to reduce the spread of anything contagious, such as staying home when sick, washing hands regularly and covering coughs and sneezes,” he said. “Students and staff may wear masks if they wish.”

How can I stay healthy during respiratory virus season?

Health officials say getting vaccinated against COVID-19, flu and RSV, if eligible, is the best step to ensure you and your loved ones are protected from serious illness. Vaccines are available at doctor’s offices, local pharmacies or through the Polk County Health Department.

“With the increasing hospitalization rates we’re seeing for respiratory viruses, we’re urging the community to get updated respiratory scans,” Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy said in a statement. “Getting the updated photos will not only protect you, but protect the health of our community and prevent hospital overload.”

Local health officials also encouraged people to follow good hygiene practices, including frequent hand washing and staying home when feeling sick.

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the registry. Contact her at (515) 851-0982 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.

Michaela Rahm covers health care for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected], at (319) 339-7354, or on Twitter at @Michaela_Ramm

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