Condition of the State: COVID cases and hospitalizations near record levels; Gov. Reynolds avoids mentioning pandemic in speech to legislature

Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers the 2022 Condition of the State speech, Tuesday, Jan. 11.

The surge in COVID-19 continues in Iowa, with the Iowa Department of Public Health reporting weekly totals for new cases and hospitalization not seen since the worst of the pandemic in late 2020.

IDPH reported 31,748 new cases in its weekly update on Wednesday, a 58 percent increase from the 20,075 new cases in its previous update, and the highest number of newly confirmed cases statewide in a week since November 2020. At the county level, both Johnson County and Linn County experienced their highest number of new cases in a week since the beginning of the pandemic.

Johnson County had 2,308 new cases, an increase from its previous high of 1,612 new cases reported last week. Linn County recorded 2,884 new cases, surpassing its previous one-week high of 2,883 new cases in a week, which occurred in November 2020.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients sharply increased over the last seven days, reaching 923 in Wednesday’s update. In its previous update, IDPH reported 792 hospitalized patients. This week’s total was the highest weekly total for hospitalized COVID-19 patients since December 2020.

According to IDPH, 72.6 percent of the hospitalized patients were not fully vaccinated.

The department also disclosed another 182 deaths from the virus, bringing Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll to 8,201. That’s roughly the population of Sioux Center, Iowa, and significantly more than the populations of Decorah, Washington and Hiawatha.

Gov. Kim Reynolds didn’t mention the Iowans lost to COVID-19 during her Condition of the State Speech on Tuesday night, even though more than 3,000 of those deaths were reported since she gave her last Condition of the State speech.

The governor did take time to acknowledge the deaths of a soldier from Iowa killed in Afghanistan, two state troopers who died in the line of duty, a nurse and correctional officer killed in Anamosa prison and Neal Smith, a former Iowa congressman who died in November at the age of 101.

It wasn’t just the loss of life from the pandemic that went unmentioned in the governor’s speech. Despite the ongoing surge, which began even before the extremely contagious Omicron variant was detected in the state, Reynolds almost entirely ignored the pandemic in her presentation of the condition of the state.

The governor did not encourage Iowans to get vaccinated or boosted, nor did she encourage anyone to wear masks – and among the lawmakers gathered in Iowa House chamber for her speech, only Democrats were wearing masks – or take any other mitigation effort.

Reynolds never used the word “COVID” or the word “coronavirus” in her speech. She used the word “pandemic” three times, each time in a way that suggested it is part of the past.

The one COVID-related issue the governor did focus on in her speech was the economic assistance the federal government provided to Americans, which Reynolds said was turning “the safety net” into “a hammock.”

“[I]it’s a growing problem, and it’s not just an economic one,” she said.

“There is dignity in work; it gives us meaning and purpose. So when it’s degraded, when idleness is rewarded with enhanced unemployment and stimulus checks, when work begins to seem optional rather than fundamental, then society begins to decay.”

“I’m worried that we’re reaching that point.”

The governor, who ended the enhanced federal unemployment benefits at the first opportunity in June 2021, went on to describe an imaginary carpenter working alone “in the freezing cold.” The imaginary carpenter “needs help,” Reynolds said, but can’t hire any help because “too many are at home, living on his tax dollars. It’s been the same for almost two years now.”

The governor used her invented scenario of the lone carpenter working in the cold as a prelude to an announcement: she wants the legislature to cut the amount of time someone can collect unemployment benefits almost in half, from six months to three and a half months.

Reynolds said her imaginary carpenter “has faith in Iowa,” so legislators should “show him [the imaginary carpenter] that Iowa does care” by cutting unemployment benefits.

The governor began her speech by highlighting the experiences two real people who “had faith in Iowa,” Ilee and Michael Muller. They moved from California to Elk Horn in western Iowa in November 2019. The Mullers opened a restaurant there in March 2020, “and you know what happened next,” Reynolds said, as she avoided directly mentioning COVID-19.

Despite the obvious problems, the Mullers’ restaurant has done well in the almost two years since it opened, and the governor clearly intended them to attend the Condition of the State speech so she could lead a round of applause, but that didn’t happen.

“The Mullers couldn’t be with us tonight,” Reynolds said, before pointing out that some people who eat at their restaurant were in the House chamber.

According to the restaurant’s website, both of the Mullers are currently experiencing health problems. Ilee is in the hospital “for a medical condition that is out of my control.” Michael is still recovering from COVID-19. The restaurant is temporarily closed and will not reopen until next month.

The governor did not mention any of this.

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