President Joe Biden announced a new six-part plan to “turn the corner” on the COVID-19 pandemic during a speech on Thursday evening. Before the president was even halfway through the speech, Gov. Kim Reynolds released a written statement denouncing the plan as “dangerous and unprecedented steps to insert the federal government even further into our lives.”
In her five-sentence statement, Reynolds repeated her constant refrain that she “trust[s] in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families,” which the governor has used throughout the pandemic as an excuse to not follow health policies recommended by the CDC and other public health experts. The governor did not, however, address what the latest COVID-19 update from the Iowa Department of Public Health indicates about the effectiveness of her approach.
In its weekly update on Wednesday, IDPH reported another 8,408 newly confirmed cases of the virus over the previous seven days, an increase from the 8,308 the department reported in its Sept. 1 update, and the highest rate of new cases reported per day since early January.
The department also reported another 30 deathed from the virus, bringing Iowa’s COVID-19 death toll to 6,337. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the state increased for the 10th straight week, jumping to 578 from 524. The number of patients in ICUs also increased since the last update, from 143 patients to 158, and those on ventilators jumped sharply, from 66 to 82.
The state’s vaccination rate continues to lag, with only 49.6 percent of all Iowans being fully vaccinated, according to IDPH. Unvaccinated Iowans make up 79.4 percent of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
The need to increase vaccinations in the United States was the focus of the speech Biden delivered from the White House on Thursday evening.
Approximately 25 percent of those eligible to be vaccinated — about 80 million people — still haven’t done so, the president said. “To make matters worse,” he continued, there are elected officials playing politics with public health and “undermining efforts” to encourage vaccination and the use of face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The president reviewed the progress that has been made in mitigating the virus and helping the economy recover from the damage caused by the pandemic, but now the spread of the Delta virus is putting some of that progress at risk.
“The path ahead, even with the Delta variant, is not nearly as bad as last winter,” Biden said. “But what makes it incredibly more frustrating is that we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans — supported by a distinct minority of elected officials — are keeping us from turning the corner.”
Biden didn’t use the names of any of the Republican governors preempting the efforts of local officials in their states to require masks or proof of vaccination, but the list is already fairly well-known around the country, and Reynolds is on it.
“We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans, who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal,” the president said.
More than once during his speech, Biden mentioned the frustration vaccinated people feel about those who refuse to get vaccinated, but most of his speech was focused on his new six-part plan.
The president cautioned that it will take time for his new measures “to have full impact,” but said by beginning implementation now “in the months ahead we can reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans, decrease hospitalizations and deaths, and allow our children to go to school safely and keep our economy strong, by keeping businesses open.”
The first part of Biden’s plan is creating “new vaccination requirements.”
“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” the president said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you — people you work with, the people you care about, people you love.”
He said he had directed the U.S. Department of Labor to create an emergency rule requiring “all employers with 100 or more employees … to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated. Or show a negative test at least once a week.”
“Some of the biggest companies are already requiring this,” Biden noted. “United Airlines, Disney, Tyson Foods and even Fox News.”
Those employers will also have to provide paid time-off to workers getting vaccinated.
“No one should lose pay to get vaccinated or take a loved one to get vaccinated,” Biden said.
In Iowa, employers with more than 100 employees include Hy-Vee, Fareway, Casey’s General Stores and the University of Iowa. Most Iowans, however, are employed by businesses with fewer than 100 employees.
Biden has also signed an executive order requiring all federal government employees to be vaccinated. There are approximately 18,000 federal employees in Iowa, but many of those workers are employed by the U.S. Postal Service, which isn’t covered by the mandate. (Federal statutes make a distinction between postal workers and other federal employees.) The executive order also requires all federal contractors to have their workforce vaccinated against COVID-19.
Biden said that nationwide, these vaccination requirements would cover “about 100 million Americans, two-thirds of all workers.”
The president then turned his attention to people who run large entertainment venues, including sports arenas and concert halls, and asked for their assistance.
“Please require folks to get vaccinated or show a negative test as a condition of entry,” he said.
A bill signed in May by Reynolds would strip any private business open to the public of state contracts or grants if it requires people entering its premise to show proof of vaccination. Nevertheless, several performance venues around the state are requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test from audience members. Hours before Biden’s speech, Des Moines Performing Arts (DMPA) became the latest to do so.
“Beginning September 25 and continuing for the foreseeable future, all guests planning to attend a performance inside a DMPA venue must present proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or the results of a negative COVID-19 test,” the nonprofit said in a statement.
“Additionally, all audience members must wear a mask at all times inside a DMPA venue unless enjoying refreshments within DMPA’s designated areas.”
From his requirements for large employers and those for federal workers and contractors, Biden turned to schools.
“The third piece of my plan — and maybe the most important — is keeping our children safe and our schools open,” he said.
Reynolds has prohibited school districts from creating mask mandates for schools, requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of eligible students (districts are still free to require all the other vaccinations they did prior to the pandemic) and increasing opportunities for social distancing by offering less than 100 percent in-person instruction in any school. She also boasted on Fox News about returning $95 million in federal pandemic aid that could have been used for virus testing programs in schools and improving ventilation, claiming it was unneeded. Schools in Iowa do not have testing programs, and many still have inadequate ventilation.
“We know that if schools follow the science, and implement the safety measures like testing, masking, adequate ventilation systems that we provided the money for, social distancing and vaccinations, then children can be safe from COVID-19 in schools,” Biden said.
He explained that staff in schools run by the federal government are already required to be vaccinated. That requirement will now be extended to state and local school programs funded by the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
The president went further, saying, “Tonight I’m calling on all governors to require vaccination for all teachers and staff.”
How well that request will be received by Iowa’s state government can be judged by the statement Reynolds issued while Biden was still speaking.
President Biden is taking dangerous and unprecedented steps to insert the federal government even further into our lives while dismissing the ability of Iowans and Americans to make healthcare decisions for themselves.
Biden’s plan will only worsen our workforce shortage and further limit our economic recovery.
As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families. It’s time for President Biden to do the same. Enough is enough.
Biden said he understood that in some states, state officials were opposing efforts by local school districts “trying to do right by our children.”
“Let me be blunt,” the president said. “My plan also takes on officials in states that are undermining you and these lifesaving actions. Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic, while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs.”
Biden referenced the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation of five states to determine if their prohibitions on mask mandates in schools violate federal laws guaranteeing students with disabilities the right to be educated in a safe environment. Iowa is one of those five states. Iowa is also facing a federal lawsuit on the same grounds, filed by the ACLU on behalf of 11 families.
“If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way,” Biden said.
The next part of the plan involves increasing COVID testing and mask wearing.
Biden said he is using the Defense Production Act (DPA), a Korean War-era law passed to ensure the U.S. will have access to goods and materials necessary for national security, to step up the manufacture of rapid at-home test kits.
Early in the pandemic, President Trump invoked the DPA to increase the manufacturing of ventilators. After that, Trump used the DPA one more time — to shield meat processing plants from state and local COVID-19 safety regulations and create a new layer of legal immunity for meat processors who exposed their workers to unsafe conditions likely to the spread the virus.
Until test kit production ramps up, rapid at-home tests will be available at discounted prices from Amazon, Walmart and Kroeger stores. Biden said his administration had struck a deal with those retailors, so they will sell the test kits at cost for the next three months.
The president said his administration will also expand free testing at pharmacies, and make free test kits available through community centers, food pantries and schools.
As for masking, Biden has directed the Federal Transportation Agency, which already requires masks on all interstate travel, to double the fine for people who won’t mask up.
The fifth part of Biden’s plan is aimed at sustaining the economic recovering from the pandemic by offering more low-cost loans and other forms of support to businesses who have been damaged by COVID-19.
The final section of the president’s plan is intended to improve health care for those infected by the virus.
The main parts of this section are increasing support for hospitals by deploying federal COVID surge teams to hospitals facing serious burdens, and increasing the availability of monoclonal antibody treatment for patients. Also, all employees at healthcare facilities that receive funds from Medicare and Medicaid must be vaccinated.
The president put the greatest emphasis in his speech on the importance of vaccination, at one point directly addressing the unvaccinated.
“What more is there to wait for?” he asked. “What more do you need to see? We’ve made vaccinations free, safe and convenient. The vaccine has FDA approval. Over 200 million have gotten at least one shot.”
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” the president said, speaking on behalf of the vaccinated. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”
“So please, do the right thing.”