Iowa marks 500 COVID-19 deaths as virus reaches all 99 counties, Reynolds acknowledges ‘substantial spread’

Emma McClatchey/Little Village

In an unusual move, Gov. Kim Reynolds began her press conference on Thursday by turning the podium over to Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Reisetter had revealed it is department policy not to confirm the existence of a COVID-19 outbreak at a business, unless directly asked about it by a reporter.

On Wednesday, Reisetter was asked why the department waited until this week to confirm COVID-19 outbreaks at Perdue Farms pork processing plants in Sioux City and Sioux Center, even though the department was informed of them on May 11.

“I think sometimes it takes us a little bit of time to pull together the information and to understand whether there has been an outbreak in a particular facility,” Reisetter said. “It also provides an opportunity for the business to independently, outside of having to do it a press conference, to notify their communities as Perdue Farms did.”

According to Radio Iowa, the company didn’t inform residents of Sioux Center about the outbreak.

Reynolds said on Thursday she wanted to give Reisetter another chance to explain how IDPH handles outbreaks at businesses like meat processing plants.

“Right now, the Iowa Department of Public Health becomes aware of outbreaks at businesses when the employers tell us or when the state facilitates testing at a particular facility,” Reisetter said. “Businesses are not currently required to report outbreaks to the Department of Public Health. Additionally, Iowa law allows confirmation about outbreaks only when necessary to protect the health of the public.”

“We’ve determined confirming outbreaks at businesses is only necessary when the employment setting constitutes a high-risk environment for the potential of COVID-19 transmission.”

Reisetter added that IDPH doesn’t necessarily receive information about testing being done at businesses in a timely manner.

“Because employers are accessing testing from a variety of sources, and not relying solely on the state, our department isn’t aware of all the testing that is occurring,” she said.

The deputy director concluded her explanation by answering a question from Wednesday’s press conference about whether there has been an outbreak at the Tyson Foods processing plant in Storm Lake.

“We have not confirmed that yet,” was Reynolds’ answer to the question on Wednesday. Today, Reisetter confirmed there is an outbreak. She said, “555 of the 2,517 employees tested have had a positive result reported so far.”

Tyson’s meat processing plant in Waterloo, 501 N Elk Run Rd, on May 10, 2020. — Sophie McClatchey/Little Village

“As always, our department will continue to provide Iowans with information about actions you can take to stay healthy and informed,” Reisetter said, before turning the podium back over to the governor.

Reynolds was asked if waiting to disclose outbreaks until reporters ask about them is the best way to protect public health.

“For heaven’s sake, throughout this entire short two-and-a-half months, we have enhanced our process,” the governor said. “We learn as we go.”

“We just have to make sure that we’re balancing the privacy of individuals with the public health impact. And so I said yesterday, we would continue to review our processes and see what makes the most sense and how we can consistently report out information.”

Not wanting the violate the privacy of individuals is the same reason Tyson Foods has cited when refusing to confirm spread of the virus in the four Tyson plants in which IDPH has identified outbreaks.

Reisetter was asked why IDPH has deleted an online form businesses could use to report outbreaks.

The form was intended to let businesses report 10 percent or greater absenteeism, Reisetter said, so the department could offer them advice on how to address a potential problem.

“We didn’t have a lot of businesses reporting that statistic, in terms of the absenteeism, and so we decided to take the survey down and instead just continue to invite businesses to work with us,” she said.

Reisetter was also asked the rationale for not requiring businesses to report COVID-19 outbreaks. She did not directly answer the question.

“Related to Iowa state law, Iowa state law related to infectious disease outbreaks, we’ve had it on the books for a long time [sic],” she replied. “Whenever we have cases of E. coli or salmonella, for example, that can be equally as infectious, we carefully balance the need to identify a particular business with the threat to the public’s health. And so, we’re applying that same statutory framework here, related to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

COVID-19, it should be noted, is spread by infected droplets exhaled by infected individuals, and is much more easily transmissible than either E. coli or salmonella.

“If we feel like it’s necessary to notify the public, we will continue to do that,” Reisetter concluded.

As of 10 a.m. on Thursday, IDPH was reporting 18,502 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, an increase of 246 cases from the same time on Wednesday. Among the newly reported cases were two residents of Johnson County and four residents of Linn County.

IDPH also reported another 15 Iowans had died from the virus, including a resident of Johnson County. As of 10 a.m., the state’s COVID-19 death toll stood at 500.

Thursday was the first day since March 19 that evictions, foreclosures and utility disconnections were permitted to take place in Iowa. It was also the first day since March 17 that bars were open up for customers. The governor didn’t mention either of those things at her press conference.

Near the end of the press conference, Reynolds did describe how she sees Iowa’s COVID-19 situation as she reopens the state.

“We are still in substantial spread throughout the state of Iowa,” Reynolds said. “We have been since March 8. We’re going to have to learn to live with and manage COVID-19, until, or if, a vaccine is discovered.”

The governor has said similar things since she began relaxing restrictions in Iowa last month, but this is first time she’s acknowledged ongoing substantial spread of the virus, instead of just saying COVID-19 is still present in the state.

When Reynolds announced her first relaxation of restrictions on April 24, allowing elective medical procedures to resume and farmers markets to open, 15 counties still hadn’t reported any cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday morning, all 99 counties had confirmed cases, following IDPH’s report of a resident of Decatur County testing positive for the virus.

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