COVID-19: Doctors rally to ask Gov. Reynolds for a mask mandate; experts warn about school reopenings

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines — Drew Tarvin

Doctors from across the state gathered on the steps of Iowa State Capitol on Saturday to call on Gov. Kim Reynolds to issue a statewide face covering mandate or allow local governments to issue mandates in their communities to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Our message is clear,” Dr. Brian Privett, an ophthalmologist in Cedar Rapids who currently serves as president of the Iowa Medical Society, said. “The benefits of wearing masks and mandating the use of masks far outweigh the downsides.”

Dr. Austin Baeth, a Des Moines internal medicine physician and the organizer of the doctors’ group, said, “Iowa is on the cusp of catastrophe and we need to do everything we can do now.”

In addition to the rally on Saturday, the doctors’ group has sent a letter signed by approximately 300 Iowa physicians to Reynolds asking for a face covering mandate.

Last week, 16 organizations representing more than 12,000 Iowa health professionals sent a letter to Reynolds calling on her to issue “a statewide public mask order for all Iowans over the age of two.”

The Iowa Public Health Association has also written to the governor asking for a statewide the mandate.

Reynolds has repeatedly said she does not believe such a mandate is needed. The governor questions whether such a mandate could be enforced. Reynolds said she also believes Iowans will do the right thing when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague issued a face covering mandate on July 21 which made violations of the mandate a simple misdemeanor. Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller maintain that local governments lack the authority to create legally enforceable face covering mandates, but neither has taken any step to challenge the Iowa City order.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Johnson County Board of Health is scheduled to vote on a countywide face covering ordinance. After the board approves it, the Board of Supervisors will vote to approve the ordinance at its meeting this week. In the opinion of the Johnson County Attorney, the ordinance will then be legally enforceable.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, a total of 45,801 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19 as of 10 a.m. on Monday. That is an increase of 320 cases since the same time on Sunday.

The department also reported another four deaths, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 878.

On Thursday, Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) announced the state standards school districts must follow when they reopen in the fall — either all in-person instruction, a hybrid of in-person and online instruction.

According to the standards, schools should provide all in-person instruction until a county has a 14-day average of 15 percent or higher positivity in its daily COVID-19 tests and there is a 10 percent absentee rate among students. At that point, a district can request permission to either switch to a hybrid model of instruction or all online instruction for 14 days.

DOE is relying on the daily testing data reported by IDPH in its decision-making process.

According to IDPH, 11 of the Johnson County’s 177 COVID-19 tests on Sunday were positive, giving the county a positivity rate of 8.2 percent. The department reported the results of 188 tests for Linn County on Sunday, 15 of which were positive. That is a positivity rate of 8 percent.

The World Health Organization recommends communities do not move forward with reopening activities until they have had 14 days with positivity rates of 5 percent or lower. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who supports schools returning to in-person instruction, has said that communities with positivity rates higher than 5 percent should use online classes instead.

During an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx was asked if she agrees with Redfield about school reopenings.

“I certainly would endorse what Dr. Redfield is saying,” Birx, the director of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said. “In the areas where we have these widespread case increases, we need to stop the cases. Then we can talk about safely reopening.”

“So, schools there [in areas with positivity rates higher than 5 percent] should stay closed?” host Dana Bash asked Birx.

“I’m going to do what the CDC guidelines have recommended and certainly the director,” the doctor replied. “If you have high caseload and active community spread, just like we’re asking people not to go to bars, not to have household parties not to create large spreading events, we are asking people to distance learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control.”

During the interview, Birx warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has entered a “new phase” in the United States.

“What we’re seeing today is different from March and April,” Birx said. “It is extraordinarily widespread — it’s into the rural [as well as] urban areas.”

Birx emphasized that people who live in rural areas should not consider themselves “immune or protected” from the virus.

“And that’s why we keep saying no matter where you live in America, you need to wear a mask and socially distance, do the personal hygiene pieces,” she said.

Last week during a White House Coronavirus Task Force phone conference with governors, Birx singled out a group of 13 states she said needed to do more to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, because of increases in cases numbers and positivity rates. Iowa was one of those states.

Birx advised the governors to take more mitigation steps, including closing bars and mandating face coverings.

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