“This thing is serious and it’s not getting better right now”: Johnson County supervisors talk COVID amid surge


The rapid rise in Covid cases last week caused Johnson County Public Health officials to halt contact tracing and instead focus on testing and educating county residents during the surge brought on by the omicron variant.

The decision produced an emotional reaction in front of the Board of Supervisors at its work meeting January 5.

“We are at just an unsustainable amount of contact tracing in these investigations,” said Community Health Division Manager Sam Jarvis, his voice cracking. “It’s a hard decision to do that because there is a desire to keep going.”

Jarvis said Public Health had received 354 positive case reports on the morning of January 5 alone. There were about 1,400 new cases reported the last week of December.

“This thing is serious and it’s not getting better right now,” said Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass. “We need masks.”

Danielle Pettit-Majewski, Johnson County Public Health Director and former Public Health Director in Washington County, broke down in tears as she spoke to the board.

“It really is a hard decision to make when you have to step back because we spent so long just trying to save lives,” she said. “When we see those folks come in and not make it, you know, because they have been misinformed and they have been lied to, it’s heartbreaking.

“We have done everything we can to figure out the best way to message to folks from all different populations. How can we save more lives? It’s a very difficult thing to do to step back and say we’ve done all we can.”

Pettit-Majewski thanked the board for the support she and her staff have received, and said she has talked often with health department officials from other counties in Iowa.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work really closely with Danielle for the last six months. I think you’ve been great here, Danielle,” Supervisor Rod Sullivan said via a Zoom connection because he tested positive for a break-through Covid case. “I can’t imagine how hard it was when you were working in a place where you didn’t have adequate staffing. Heck, we don’t have adequate staffing. It had to be really hard being all things to all people in Washington County.”

All of Iowa remains in the “high risk” category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and case numbers are spiraling. As of Sunday, Johnson County had risen to 1,564 Covid cases, more than doubling within one week, with a positivity rate of 29.01%. Washington County’s positivity rate was over 30%.

A mask mandate remains in place in all Johnson County buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The mask mandate expires January 15, but the board will vote on an extension this week.

Johnson County Public Health has Test Iowa kits available at its offices (855 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City) and sends those tests to a lab daily. Results are usually back within 24 hours.

While the number of Covid cases is rising, the number of unvaccinated county employees was still not known at the board’s meetings last week.

Warnings were to be given this week to county employees that have not returned vaccination status forms, according to a timeline the board heard from Lora Shramek, Human Resources Director.

As of January 5, 32 employees had not returned the status forms. They faced a January 7 deadline, which had been extended from the original December 13 deadline.

The first warnings were to be verbally given by department supervisors, Shramek said, followed by written warnings on January 17 for those still not in compliance. On January 24, the penalty would be a one-day unpaid suspension.

Beginning January 31, unvaccinated employees must be tested weekly and they cannot begin work until a negative test is returned. Employees can request a medical or religious exemption.

The board’s formal meeting on January 13 will begin at 5:30 p.m., and includes a public hearing on an economic development plan for the county’s unincorporated areas, villages and smaller towns. Also up for consideration will be a number of other development and rezoning applications.


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