Throughout his life, Dale Weeks was characterized by family and friends in Iowa as “a good neighbor,” someone who would do anything for anyone. So when he was diagnosed with sepsis last month, the retired schools superintendent and his family hoped he would get immediate care and be OK to reunite with them for the holidays.
But at a time when unvaccinated COVID-19 patients have again overwhelmed hospitals because of the fast-spreading omicron variant, finding an available bed at a large medical center able to give him the treatment he needed proved to be difficult. Weeks was being treated at a small, rural hospital. He had waited 15 days to be transferred to a larger hospital with better treatment options, because facilities throughout Iowa did not have an open bed for him as a result of the latest hospital surge of unvaccinated patients, his children told The Washington Post.
“It was terribly frustrating being told, ‘There’s not a bed yet,’ ” Jenifer Owenson, one of his four children, said Tuesday. “All of us were talking multiple times a day, ‘Why can’t we get him a bed?’ There was this logjam to get him in anywhere.”
When Weeks was finally able to have surgery more than two weeks later, his condition from sepsis had worsened. Weeks died Nov. 28 of complications after surgery. He was 78.
Anthony Weeks, his son, said that the family believes their vaccinated and boosted father was the latest indirect victim of the pandemic — and that he would have survived his sepsis diagnosis if he was immediately admitted to a larger medical center that had an open bed.
“The frustrating thing was not that we wanted him to get care that others weren’t getting, but that he didn’t get care when he needed it. And when he did get it, it was too late,” he said. “The question comes up of: ‘Who was in those beds?’ If it’s people who are unvaccinated with COVID, then that’s the part where it really hurts.”
Owenson added: “The thing that bothers me the most is people’s selfish decision not to get vaccinated and the failure to see how this affects a greater group of people. That’s the part that’s really difficult to swallow.”
Marcy Peterson, a spokeswoman with MercyOne, the hospital system that cared for Dale Weeks in Newton, Iowa, did not get into the specifics of his case, but she acknowledged the frustration surrounding hospitals that are again overwhelmed with unvaccinated patients. She said in a statement to The Post that “a large percentage” of COVID-19 patients at MercyOne hospitals are unvaccinated.
“In addition to an increased number of COVID-19 cases and spread of the delta and omicron variants, hospitals across the country are dealing with traumas and experiencing multiple types of illness,” Peterson said. “This demand is coupled with a reduced number of staff to care for patients. These challenges can strain available resources and contribute to delays in care or other complications for patients.”
Weeks’ case comes as hospitals nationwide continue to reel from surging volumes of coronavirus patients thanks to omicron and a record-breaking flurry of infections stemming from what’s now the nation’s dominant virus variant. Cities such as New York and hospitals in states such as Louisiana, Florida and Texas have all reported significant upticks in cases during the holiday week.
More than 71,000 people in the United States are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, with 16,344 occupying beds in the intensive care unit, according to data tracked by The Post.
As in much of the country, coronavirus cases in Iowa have increased since last week. The state is averaging more than 1,500 new infections a day, according to data tracked by The Post. More than 720 people are hospitalized in the state, which is an improvement compared with the previous seven-day stretch, data shows.
But the state is feeling the effects of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients overwhelming hospitals amid the current surge. Almost 82% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state are unvaccinated, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health, and state data shows that more than 85% of COVID-19 patients occupying beds in intensive care units are unvaccinated.
Less than 60% of the state is fully vaccinated, which trails the national rate of 62%.
Similar cases of vaccinated people dying, in part, because of hospitals overwhelmed by unvaccinated patients have come up throughout the pandemic. In Alabama, Ray DeMonia died of a cardiac emergency in September after he was turned away from 43 hospitals in three states.
Weeks was born June 16, 1943, and grew up in a “very poor” environment in rural Iowa, but was enamored with school and education at an early age, his family said. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Northwest Missouri State University and obtaining master’s and specialist degrees in education from Drake University, Weeks knew he wanted to serve and educate young people in Iowa, according to his obituary.
“Dad could have taken the easy route of saying, ‘I’ll just be a school administrator because it’s a job,’ but he truly believed his work was helping people who needed to learn,” said Owenson, 57, of Des Moines. “He believed education was what was going to help people get to the next place they need to be.”
Weeks taught math and science, and was also a principal, before becoming a schools superintendent for three school districts in the state. He retired in 2007.
The resident of Seymour, Iowa, would do whatever it took to save his school district some money, including picking up school buses. Julie Simanski, one of his daughters, recalled a time when he pulled over in Ohio to help a church congregation whose own bus had broken down on the side of the road.
“This whole church congregation ran over and said, ‘Hallelujah, the Lord has answered our prayers!’ He said, ‘How can I help?’ ” said Simanski, 57, of Ankeny, Iowa. “He told them to get on the bus and he took them to where they needed to go. That was the epitome of who he was.”
When the pandemic began to devastate the country last year, the Weeks family joined the millions of Americans who worried about their parents and loved ones being separated from them. But Weeks was careful, Owenson said, and was vaccinated, and got boosted in late October. Simanski recalled later telling her dad about how a friend of hers was struggling to get family members vaccinated.
“He said, ‘I don’t understand that, what is the reason for not getting vaccinated?’ ” Simanski said. “I told him how these people didn’t know what was in the vaccine. He said, ‘Well, we didn’t know what was in polio, either, but we got the shot.’ “
Around Halloween, Weeks called his children to let them know he would not be able to attend his granddaughter’s birthday party because he “didn’t feel good,” Owenson said. He had just gotten his booster and flu shots, and his doctor figured he was feeling some side effects.
“He said, ‘I shouldn’t be around if I don’t know what’s making me feel this way,’ ” Simanski said. “He went that extra mile to make sure he wasn’t going to infect anyone if he had COVID.”
But on Nov. 1, Weeks and his wife, Roberta, went to a hospital, where it was determined that he had sepsis, a dangerous, blood-borne infection unrelated to COVID-19 that is the body’s often-deadly response to out-of-control infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 patients who die in a hospital have sepsis.
Instead of staying at the hospital in Centerville, Iowa, for treatment, the family said, they were told by officials that the facility had no available beds. The surge was so bad in the state that the closest hospital bed officials could initially find was in Illinois. The next day, they were able to locate a bed at a small hospital in Newton, about 80 miles from Centerville.
Although the hospital did the best it could to help treat Weeks with intravenous antibiotics, Owenson said, the family repeatedly pleaded for their father to be transferred to a hospital with more advanced treatment methods. A cardiologist ran tests on Weeks and concluded that his condition was worsening.
“He was languishing in the hospital bed without care,” said Anthony Weeks, 52, of San Francisco. “He was a fixer and liked to explore creative solutions to things. So it was really baffling why he couldn’t fix this — or why no one could fix this.”
After the family was allegedly told by hospital employees that their father was not high up on a “list of degrees of severity” to warrant a transfer, Owenson reached out to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics about two weeks into his wait. Christopher Beard, a spokesman for the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, told The Post that it is “the only tertiary-care hospital in Iowa.”
“I was begging for someone to look at his case,” Owenson said.
On Nov. 17, after 15 days, the university’s hospital transferred Dale Weeks to its clinic. About a week later, on Thanksgiving, doctors determined that he needed surgery to clear out an infection in an artery near his stomach, where he had a stent previously installed to repair an aneurysm.
“He called us and said, ‘The doctor said I’ll have to have surgery or I’ll likely die in a few days,’ ” Simanski said.
Despite the 17-hour surgery on Nov. 26, Weeks was still struggling, his family said. A second surgery was performed, but it could not help his failing kidneys or intestines. He died shortly thereafter.
Days after Christmas, the family said they are still struggling to wrap their heads around how their father died — and the care he needed that he was unable to receive.
“One of the things that nags at me is if he could have gotten the care he needed earlier, would the surgery not be as onerous as it turned out to be?” Owenson said.
As the omicron variant continues to affect hospitals nationwide during the holidays, Weeks’ children are begging the millions who remain unvaccinated to look to their father’s example of what it is to be “a good neighbor.”
“The irony of it all is that someone who was committed to service and helping people his whole life ended up dying from people not being neighborly or helpful,” Simanski said.
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The story was first reported by The Des Moines Register.