While the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Dubuque County dropped by 62% in December, compared to one month earlier, nearly 40% of the people tested still were found to have the coronavirus.

The calculations are based on figures shared this week by public health officials at the Dubuque City Council meeting. The update also included more information on the distribution of vaccines locally and included an estimate that about 38,000 county residents fall into priority groups.

City Public Health Specialist Mary Rose Corrigan noted that there were 3,538 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the county in November, compared to 1,341 in December.

“It indicates to me that we have had much less community spread in December,” Corrigan told the Telegraph Herald on Tuesday.

But the number of people being tested for COVID-19 plummeted in December as well, falling from 7,351 in November to 3,528 — a decrease of 52%.

Corrigan said December’s numbers might be an indicator that people were engaging in fewer social activities and adhering to safety protocols set forth by the state and local governments. She could not say why fewer tests were administered in December but iterated that the availability of tests did not decline during the month, outside of testing sites being closed on the holidays.

“We do know that testing is widely available and accessible in the county,” she said. “There are probably more cases out there that aren’t being tested, but we don’t know what that is.”

Bobby Koneru, Dubuque County medical liaison on coronavirus, said the December numbers could indicate that COVID-19 exposure decreased, but he expressed concerns that another increase will be seen in January.

“I am worried that those numbers are going to go back up,” he said. “A lot of people traveled to come home for the holidays, so that could result in numbers increasing again.”

CONFLICTING FIGURES?

The total number of individuals tested in one month represents several populations, such as people who have COVID-19 symptoms and close contacts of people who are infected, but also people who are covered by mandated testing, such as residents of long-term-care centers.

With 3,528 confirmed cases and 7,351 people tested in November, 48% of Dubuque County residents who got tested that month were confirmed to have the coronavirus.

With 1,341 cases and 3,528 people in December, that percentage fell to 38%.

Still, those percentages present a different picture than the 14-day positivity rates provided by the state.

For example, as of 5 p.m. Oct. 31, the county’s 14-day rate stood at 18.1%. It had climbed to 24.8% as of 5 p.m. Nov. 15, but it had fallen back to 16.9% as of 5 p.m. Nov. 30. The descent continued into December, with the rate at 12% as of 5 p.m. Dec. 15 and to 9.7% as of 5 p.m. Dec. 31.

VACCINE UPDATE

Corrigan also provided updated figures related to some of the vaccination efforts in Dubuque County.

This week, the county reported 1,950 second doses are being received for front-line health care workers, meaning they will be fully vaccinated, having received their first doses several weeks ago. Another 800 front-line health care workers have received their first doses.

“The majority of our first few weeks’ allocations have been given to our hospitals,” Corrigan said. “Some (have been given) to three of the major clinics in Dubuque.”

Meanwhile, pharmacies have started administering first doses of vaccines to at least some of the long-term-care centers in the county.

The front-line health care workers and long-term-care facilities both are in the highest priority group for vaccinations.

There are an estimated 4,857 front-line health care workers in the county, and 2,283 long-term-care center residents and staff.

The next priority group includes people who are at least 75, congregate-living facilities, emergency and law enforcement personnel, food packaging and distribution workers, school staff and child care providers, and adults considered to be high risk due to underlying medical conditions.

The next-highest priority group then includes people between the ages of 65 and 74, other residents with underlying medical conditions, essential workers and public health officials.

The state will transition from each stage as a whole, meaning smaller counties that can inoculate their priority groups quicker than more populous counties will have to wait before they can move on to the next group.

“The entire state will always be in the same priority group,” Corrigan said. “We will not move to the next priority group until the whole state completes that group. The way this shakes out is some of the smaller counties will finish up their allocation for this priority group sooner than some of the larger populated counties who actually have more of the health care workers in their communities.”

It could be some time before the rest of the general public is given access to the vaccine.

Corrigan estimated that there are about 38,000 people in Dubuque County — or about 40% — in the various priority groups for receiving the vaccine, including 17,819 people who are at least 65 years old.

“You can see this process with the current allocation schedule is going to take a while,” Corrigan said. “We like to think we are going to start getting more doses of vaccine.”