homepage logo


Listen to him; he’s a doctor

University of Iowa pathology resident from Estherville gives on-site perspective of what researchers are learning about COVID-19 and developing to fix it

By Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer | Nov 29, 2020


If St. Patrick’s Catholic Church has a Christmas Eve mass this year, for the first time since he was 13 years old, Dr. Rob Humble will not be sending Christmas Carol melodies out over the sanctuary from behind the church’s organ. Because Rob is not coming home for Christmas due to COVID-19. Dr. Humble said based on the timeline of a vaccine rolling out, everyone can expect another year of restrictions and precautions – celebrations, gatherings and occasions may well be smaller and spaced out through Fall, 2021, with hugs on hold until then as well.

A 2008 graduate of Estherville Lincoln Central High School, Dr. Humble is a resident physician at the University of Iowa pathology department where he has been involved in the department’s efforts to innovate the nasal swab test so many Iowans and others have grown to know and scrunch up their faces after the swab is removed.

“A lot of the labs came up with the same thing. We were in need of a diagnostic test that could be given to thousands of people After the test was developed then the labs bring it on line in Iowa and other places,” Dr. Humble said.

The University of Iowa has built its capacity to run 1,500 tests each day through its lab. While civilians may wait several days for their test results, medical staff at the University of Iowa can have their results back in 12 hours. This means they self-isolate for only one day instead of several days while waiting for test results.

Dr. Humble said a lot of what we know about COVID-19 has come from autopsies of Iowa residents performed at the pathology lab at the University. Dr. Humble was finishing an autopsy before we spoke by phone on Friday, though he has not yet personally performed any of the autopsies on former patients who had coronavirus.

“We’re finding severe inflammations in the lungs, kidneys and hearts of these patients. We are now finding some things we hadn’t observed right away – small clots in the brain or throughout the body. The clots in the brain are causing strokes. We are still learning and there is of work to be done,” Dr. Humble said.

Medical experts are now identifying “long haulers” with COVID-19: those who had mild or at least manageable symptoms, who are experiencing months of continuing shortness of breath, fatigue, and loss of smell when in most cases the loss of smell goes away in a short time, Dr. Humble said.

Dr. Humble said changes in recommendation and protocol have happened as a result of continual learning about the virus.

Even doctors and nurses who take as many precautions cannot completely prevent getting COVID-19, Dr. Humble said.

University of Iowa Hospitals changed its protocol. Dr. Humble said in April everyone in the medical staff thought masks were of limited help in preventing the spread of the virus. Through continuous learning, they found that masks do help, both in preventing the spread of the virus from the person wearing it to those around them, and also in protecting the person wearing the mask.

The clinics at the University Hospital have most personnel wearing both masks and face coverings. There are plexiglass barriers all over, temperature sensors as people enter the building.

Dr. Humble said several hundred employees tested positive for COVID-19; it is thought they contracted it through community spread or from other parts of the state. If anyone presents with any symptoms, they are removed from the facility as soon as possible to avoid getting their co-workers sick.

“We can’t afford to have many people out at any given moment. At the peak we had 100 people diagnosed with COVID-19. All summer to early fall, we never had more than 20 or 30 people out. The last couple of weeks we had the spike,” Dr. Humble said.

The University Hospital, like other hospitals around the state, may have to cancel elective surgeries and take other precautions they don’t want to take to make sure resources are there for essential medical services. These procedures are often what constitute a hospital’s bottom line, along with biopsies.

“These are challenges facing hospitals everywhere,” Dr. Humble said.

After making up lost ground for people who had delayed care, medical personnel worry about a continued spike in cases over the winter causing a buildup of cases. If the hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients, people having heart attacks, strokes, injuries and other critical medical needs might go without or have to be transported far from the nearest hospital for treatment, Dr. Humble said.

“What people can do now is not make the situation worse,” Dr. Humble said.

It will depend on all of us to slow the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Humble doesn’t want to miss Christmas with his family, but he will do it for the greater good. And just staying home if you feel sick isn’t going to help enough as 50% of people who have been spreaders in the community had no symptoms.

“These are temporary sacrifices we are making,” Dr. Humble said.

The Vaccine

There is a vaccine in development at University of Iowa from Pfizer. The preliminary studies show it is 90% effective. University researchers have applied for emergency approval to start vaccinating hospital staff. Dr. Humble will have the vaccine and agreed to update Estherville News readers on how it goes. Dr. Humble said he is hopeful the vaccine will begin to go out to essential workers soon.

“There’s enough spread in Iowa that it’s considered out of control. We can improve how we deal with it. If cases rise the way they have in November, we will overburden our hospitals and cause more public health problems than we could anticipate,” Dr. Humble said.

It will still be several months to get the vaccine and after health care workers it will go to other essential workers, high risk individuals, and the elderly. Then it will roll out to other community members.

Even after that, it will be several more months before we can experience any sort of normalcy. Most of 2021 may look a lot like 2020.

“I expect this will go on through next Fall. We’ll really be dealing with this for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Humble said.

There is a fatigue with having to restrict ourselves from doing what we want to do, the way we want to do them, Dr. Humble said.

“I was talking with my mother (Connie Humble, principal of ELC Demoney Elementary School) about this, and she said children at the elementary school have been great about wearing their masks, covering their faces all the time. It’s kind of funny how they will police each other. If the kids can do it, we can, too,” Dr. Humble said.

For those concerned about the safety of vaccination, Dr. Humble said he had full faith in the FDA to only approve a safe version of the vaccine, and public vaccination has helped in the past with all kinds of diseases from smallpox to polio to measles.

“Vaccines are how we will face the future. Wear a mask. I will continue to speak up about it,” Dr. Humble said.