Iowa's number of positive coronavirus tests is ticking up. Infectious disease expert says spread shows pandemic isn't over.

Nick Coltrain Tim Webber
Des Moines Register

Iowa's seven-day rate of positive coronavirus tests is up 500 people compared to a week ago, an 18% increase after a steady decline in cases since the winter, Iowa Department of Public Health data of as Tuesday shows.

In the past week, there have been 3,731 positive coronavirus tests in Iowa, up from 3,150 in the week prior to March 22. The seven-day total of positive tests had previously dipped to 3,098 positive tests — the lowest it has been since June — before ticking back up.

Iowa's uptick coincides with "continuing, concerning trends" in national coronavirus data, as U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky described it in a press briefing Monday. She said she's facing a recurring feeling of "impending doom" watching the spread of the virus.

More:CDC reiterates that Americans should 'please limit travel' as US hits 30 million cases of COVID-19

"We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope, but right now I’m scared," Walensky said, according to a White House transcript. "I know what it’s like as a physician to stand in that patient room — gowned, gloved, masked, shielded — and to be the last person to touch someone else’s loved one because their loved one couldn’t be there."

The increases in cases are occurring even as more Iowans and people across the country become vaccinated against COVID-19. Studies show the inoculations may decrease transmission as well as prevent hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.

More:Iowa reports 4 additional COVID-19 deaths, 588 new confirmed coronavirus cases

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds plans to open up vaccine eligibility to everyone aged 16 or older on April 5. Some counties have already opened vaccines to all, Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said.

'Let's not kill people just because of complacency,' Iowa doctor warns

But everyone isn't vaccinated yet. And until a critical mass of vaccination is reached, people should continue to wear masks, avoid large gatherings and wash their hands frequently, Des Moines infectious disease Dr. Rossana Rosa said in an interview.

"We're very close to a situation where we'd consider it much safer to do all of those things, because things can still get out of control," Rosa said. "Let's not kill people just because of complacency."

Rosa said she was worried about the virus' variants. Studies show that the B.1.1.7 strain, commonly known as the U.K. variant, is more transmissible and potentially more deadly than the strain that warped daily life more than a year ago. There have been 89 confirmed cases of that strain in Iowa, though Rosa and state public health officials warn it is likely in wider circulation than that.

Drake student Jamie Rusan doses out a shot of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic on Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines. The clinic, organized by Broadlawns Medical Center and United Way, provided more than 1,100 shots to Des Moines area residents.

While virus activity in the state has calmed considerably since the spike in November threatened to overwhelm hospitals, almost all of the state is still classified as experiencing either community spread or accelerated spread of the virus, according to a risk assessment map maintained by the Brown School of Public Health.

Eighteen counties are in a danger zone in which public health experts would encourage stay-at-home orders, according to the map.

On March 30, the seven-day average of new reported cases was 574, up from a low point of 412 just over a week prior. That’s the highest the seven-day average has been since mid-February, as the state was recovering from the winter’s spike in cases.

Hospitalizations also appear to be back on the rise, although not as sharply as new cases. After dropping below 200 concurrent hospitalizations at the end of February for the first time since last summer, the state briefly went back over 200 at the end of last week. Hospitalizations and deaths tend to increase a few weeks after cases increase.

Iowa officials briefly reported zero COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes in the state, giving a relief to the hard-hit facilities. They house some of the state's most vulnerable people. The residents account for nearly 40% of the more than 5,700 Iowans killed by the disease, despite making up less than 1% of the state's population.

More:Iowa reaches zero COVID outbreaks in nursing homes, after vaccines rein in coronavirus

Two have since been classified as having a COVID-19 outbreak, defined as three or more residents testing positive for the virus. The residents were among the highest priorities for the vaccine and more than 90% of those Iowans have been vaccinated.

"We have put ourselves in a position where if we started to see an uptick again, I wouldn't be surprised," Rosa said. "The message back in February essentially was OK, things are normal. We can lift all mitigation measures. And that's what worries federal officials, what's happening at the state level." 

She referred to Reynolds letting public health measures, including limits on gatherings and mask requirements in certain situations, expire. Reynolds and other state public health officials still encourage the practices, but do not mandate them.

Mass vaccination clinic in Des Moines Saturday

While more than three-quarters of the state’s population age 70 or older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Iowa Department of Public Health and U.S. census data, many people in the state is still unvaccinated.

About two thirds of people age 50-59 have not received a shot so far — and the number is lower for younger age groups. People younger than 60 accounted for about 80% of the state’s positive tests in the past seven days. More than half of those were people age 18-39 — a cohort of which more than three quarters are still unvaccinated.

Ahead of expected universal eligibility, Hy-Vee and 211 Iowa are partnering for a mass vaccination clinic in Des Moines Saturday targeting people age 65 or older and those aged 16-64 with underlying health conditions such as obesity, smoking, high blood pressure or asthma.

While officials encourage people to bring photo identification and health insurance cards, those are not required for people to receive the vaccine. The clinic will offer the Pfizer vaccine, which requires a second dose weeks later to reach full efficacy. A second clinic for the booster shots is planned for April 24.

The clinic will be at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center, 833 Fifth Ave., in Des Moines from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Participants must pre-register by calling 211 or 800-244-7431. It will have enough supply for 3,500 doses, Ekstrand said.

The phone numbers also now open seven-days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to help people eligible for a vaccine to schedule one.

Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at or at 515-284-8361.