Iowa had its sixth consecutive day with more than 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. During the 24-period ending at 10 a.m., the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 4,337 more confirmed cases of the virus in the state. Among those new cases were 164 residents of Johnson County and 375 residents of Linn County.
Those cases pushed the total number of Linn County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 to 10,372. Since Iowa’s first three cases of the virus were confirmed in Johnson County on March 8, a total of 7,751 of its residents have tested positive.
The number of COVID-19 deaths reported per day remained high on Thursday. Between 10 a.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday, IDPH reported another 30 Iowans had died from the virus. Those new deaths brought the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 1,928.
An analysis published by NPR on Thursday found that cases of COVID-19 in Iowa had increased by 201 percent over the past two weeks. Iowa ranked third among states for the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, with 141. Only North and South Dakota had higher a rate of cases.
The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Iowa increased again, with IDPH reporting 1,208 patients on Thursday morning. Two hundred and seven of the patients had been admitted during the previous 24 hours, and 215 of them were being treated in intensive care units.
Early in her news conference on Thursday morning, Gov. Kim Reynolds acknowledged the extent of the virus’s spread in the state.
“Since Nov. 1, more than 37,000 new cases have been reported,” she said.
“We are seeing significant community spread across our entire state, both in our metro and rural communities,” Reynolds noted, reading from her prepared remarks.
But the governor turned quickly to blaming the news media for causing what she said was unnecessary worry about the impact of the COVID-19 surge on health care.
“Recent news coverage has warned Iowans that hospital beds in some areas are full, suggesting that people may not be able to receive care,” Reynolds said “My team and DPH is [sic] in regular contact with health systems and hospitals leaders, and they assure the team and me that that is not the case.”
The governor didn’t give any examples of the coverage she is claiming is incorrect. But it is possible some people have inferred they might have trouble receiving care due to recent developments.
Last week, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics announced it was activating its surge plan to prevent the hospital from being overwhelmed. That plan involves dedicating more bed space and staff to COVID-19 patients and limiting or rescheduling some elective procedures.
On Monday, UnityPoint Health announced its four Des Moines hospitals were at or near capacity. Both Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint Health—St. Luke’s in Cedar Rapids announced on Thursday they have begun reducing elective surgeries that “require a hospital stay after surgery.” The two hospitals said in a written statement this was part of “an effort to preserve staffing needs as local hospitals address the surge of COVID-19 admissions.”
On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Stephen Scheckel, Mercy Iowa City’s chief medical officer, told Johnson County elected leaders that hospitals in eastern Iowa “are pretty much at their maximum capacity.”
“And when that happens, then we all risk the possibility of not having the healthcare services available that we all need,” Scheckel said during an emergency Joint Entities meeting on Zoom to address the surge in COVID-19 in Johnson County.
Scheckel said that the latest survey of 17 hospitals in the region showed that “only two hospitals had ICU bed capacity.”
During the question and answer portion of Reynolds’ news conference on Thursday, David Pitt of the Associated Press pointed out that the current statewide surge began in late September and increased throughout October.
“We didn’t really hear anything from you in October regarding additional mitigation measures, and I was wondering why you waited until Tuesday to do something new,” Pitt said.
“Well, first of all, I don’t agree with your premise or the statement that you just made,” Reynolds said, clearly annoyed. “It’s not accurate.”
The rest of the governor’s reply showed that Pitt’s statement was accurate.
Reynolds said she had called into many radio stations across Iowa during October, and encouraged people to take basic precautions like washing their hands and engaging in social distancing. It’s the same message the governor has repeating since March.
Reynolds held only one news conference devoted to COVID-19 last month. She spent a great deal of time in October traveling the state, campaigning on behalf Republican candidates. Photos and videos of those campaign events show the majority of attendees did not wear face masks or practice social distancing.
It was only on Tuesday the governor issued another emergency health proclamation, containing some new, minor mitigation steps, such as requiring most indoor gatherings of 25 or more people and outdoor gatherings of 100 or more to require participants to wear face coverings.
Infectious disease experts said the sort of limited measures contained in the new proclamation are unlikely to have much impact when virus spread is as extensive as it currently is in Iowa.
In her reply to Pitt, Reynolds pointed to her plan to buy newspaper, radio and TV ads to encourage people to take basic COVID-19 precautions. The governor announced that plan last week, and its public service announcement ads are still in the process of being rolled out.
“With the PSA, it just takes time, working with the broadcasters’ association, working with the various newspapers and working with television, you know, to put that together,” she said. “Just because you’ve not seen it — we’ve been reaching out, we’ve been putting that together, we’ve been working on what that looks like.”
“And I think newspaper ads went out this week. I believe radio has started and TV should start next week, after I get the different individuals that we’re trying to bring in.”
During her prepared remarks, Reynolds said the state was beginning to run through the last of the test sample kits that were provided as part of the $26 million no-bid contract she awarded to Utah tech firms in April to create Test Iowa.
“We’ve received all the tests that we’ve contracted for, and we have approximately 140,000 remaining, which we anticipate the supply will take us through Dec. 11,” she said.
The governor said she had amended the Test Iowa contract to buy more test kits from Nomi Health, the principle company behind Test Iowa. The state will pay Nomi $3.42 million for 360,000 more test kits. Because the governor did this by amending the contract, she did not have to follow Iowa’s normal procurement procedures and solicit bids for the multi-million dollar purchase.
The governor said during the news conference she is proud of the level of testing Iowa is currently doing. According to Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health, average positivity rates for COVID-19 tests above 5 percent indicate that not enough testing is being done. According to IDPH, Iowa’s 14-day average positivity rate on Thursday was 22.1 percent.
All the state’s Test Iowa sites closed this week for Veteran’s Day, despite the ongoing surge and the difficulty people have had scheduling COVID-19 tests in recent weeks. Reynolds was asked on Thursday whether Test Iowa should have closed for a day-and-a-half this week under those circumstances.
“I actually asked them if they could figure out a way to keep the lab open over Veteran’s Day, and it just requires really a lot of logistics again and so, we’re working on that right now and hopefully we’ll see what the need is and see what we have to do to meet that need,” she replied.