COVID-19: Iowa has its worst day for new cases yet. Gov. Reynolds says Iowans just need to be reminded to do the right thing.

John Martinek/Little Village

Iowa recorded its highest ever one-day total of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, when the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 4,562 Iowans had tested positive for the virus during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m.

That is a 71 percent increase over the previous one-day high of 2,887 new cases set four days ago on Nov. 1.

Among the new cases were 128 residents of Johnson County. Linn County set a new one-day record with 369 new cases.

On Thursday, IDPH also reported a new record high number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients for the 11th straight day. There were 839 patients, a jump from the previous day’s total of 777.

The surge in hospitalizations in the state is increasing. It took Iowa 13 days to go from surpassing 500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients to more than 600. It took four days to go from that total to more than 700. It took three days to exceed 800.

IDPH reported another 20 deaths from the virus between 10 a.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday, increasing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 1,801.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds held her news conference on the state’s response to COVID-19 since Oct. 7.

Since that last COVID-19 news conference, 46,260 Iowa have tested positive for the virus, which is approximately one-third of all the cases that have been confirmed since the state’s first three cases on March 8. And 387 people have died from the virus since Oct. 7. That is slightly more than one-fifth of all of Iowa’s COVID-19 fatalities.

“Over the last few weeks my work as governor has taken me across the state,” Reynolds said at her Thursday conference, acknowledging she had not held any recent COVID-19 news conferences. The governor said traveling had given her a chance to talk to many Iowans, which was important.

Reynolds, of course, has been most visible in recent weeks at campaign events around the state for Republican candidates. Speaking to reporters after a Joni Ernst campaign event in Stuart, Iowa, last Thursday, the governor said her campaign schedule had kept her from holding COVID-19 news conferences.

“There’s a lot going on,” she said. “There’s a lot of chaos with the election, and so, you know, we’re out trying to get the message to where we need to, and we’re going to continue to do it. And we’ll get back to a routine sooner rather than later.”

Reynolds started her news conference on Thursday by referencing this week’s election.

“This year, Iowans validated the direction of our state by expanding the majority in the Iowa House and maintaining the strong majority in the state Senate,” she said. Reynolds said it was endorsement of her administration’s conservative policies.

“In addition, it was a validation of our balanced response to COVID-19,” the governor said.

Reynolds did concede that COVID-19 has been surging in the state over the past month.

“We all know that this trend can’t continue,” she said.

The governor recalled that early in the pandemic she ordered some businesses to close and put strict limits on public gatherings.

“Those actions were necessary at the time to ensure we were prepared to effectively manage our response to COVID-19, but they never were intended to be long-term solutions,” she said.

The governor made it clear she has no intention of returning to the policies that helped limit the spread of the virus from mid-March until she began to relax restrictions after approximately six weeks.

“Today the situation is much different and we have more options available to us to keep our state healthy,” Reynolds said. “We’ve built a very strong testing program … New treatments and therapies are now available that didn’t even exist less than a year ago. And vaccines are ahead on the horizon.”

Of course, it’s no surprise that there are treatments and therapies for COVID-19 “that didn’t even exist less than a year ago,” since the virus was first discovered less than a year ago. And infectious disease experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci have warned the earliest a vaccine could become widely available will likely be the middle of next year.

The governor’s current plan is to continue to encourage Iowans to behave responsibly and take such basic steps as washing their hands, practicing social distancing and wearing a face covering in public if they so choose.

“For the next three weeks at least, I am asking Iowans to make every effort to help us stop the spread of COVID-19 [by taking those basic precautions],” Reynolds said. “It’s critically right that we work together to protect those who are most vulnerable to serious illness and to continue to do everything we can to preserve our healthcare resources.”

Reynolds put an upbeat spin on the burden hospitals are laboring under as the surge in COVID-19 patients continues, saying that she and her staff have been in constant communication with hospital executives across the state.

“What I heard hospital CEOs was encouraging and inspiring, while understanding the seriousness of COVID-19,” the governor said. “They have assured me they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to continue patient care in any situation, even a pandemic.”

Speaking on their own, Iowa hospital executives have stressed that their institutions are being pushed to the limit. On Monday, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran warned reporters the state is entering “the danger zone” as cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations continue to rise.

Shortly after Reynolds’ 11 a.m. news conference concluded on Thursday, Gunasekaran announced that UIHC is activating its surge plan to prevent the hospital from being overwhelmed. This is the first time UIHC is entering the first tier of its three-tier plan. The current intention is for UIHC to remain at tier one until at least Jan. 3.

Tier one involves shifting resources, dedicating more staff to COVID-19 patients and reassigning beds that would normally be reserved for other types of patients. In order to maintain staffing levels, UIHC is also changing its policy calling for those who have been exposed to COVID-19 to self-quarantine. Now, clinical staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 but tested negative and are asymptomatic are being told to come into work as scheduled, due to staff pressure caused by the surge in cases.

At her news conference, Reynolds pointed to her announcement on Tuesday that she has allocated $25 million in federal CARES Act funds to assist the state’s hospitals with their staffing problems.

Reynolds also had two representatives from major hospitals speak at her press conference, Dr. Hijinio Carrieon of Mercy One Des Moines and Dr. Dave Williams of UnityPoint Iowa. Both doctors talked about the strain the staff at their hospitals are experiencing.

Williams said healthcare workers “are at this point exhausted. They’re exhausted mentally, their exhausted physically. They’ve been battling this for eight grueling months.”

Both doctors said Iowans need to change their behavior to help limit the spread of the virus, stressing the need to gain control over its spread during the next three weeks, before winter weather forces people to spend more time together indoors, which will allow COVID-19 to spread more easily. The upcoming holidays also pose a real challenge, since the current spike in community spread is attributed to small gatherings among friends and families.

Both doctors left immediately after they concluded their remarks. The governor said they had to leave because they were very busy. Their quick exit prevented reporters from being able to ask them questions, such as whether they think Iowa should be taking more active measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The governor deflected questions on Thursday about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Iowa by repeatedly saying other states were also seeing increases in cases. But Iowa has consistingly been ranked in the top 10 of states with the worst rates of virus spread by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. In its most recent report, the task force said Iowa ranked sixth in the nation in the rate of new COVID-19 cases.

The task force has also consistently called on the governor to enact new measures to limit the spread of the virus, and the governor has consistently rejected those recommendations, saying she trusts Iowans to do the right thing.

At her news conference on Thursday, Reynolds did announce a new initiative she said she believes will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 over the next three weeks.

Starting next week, the Reynolds administration will place ads in newspapers around the state, encouraging Iowans to behave responsibly by observing social distancing, washing their hands and taking other basic steps. After that, there will be similar ads on radio and television.

The governor suggested much of the current surge in COVID-19 is due to people ignoring basic precautions because they have “pandemic fatigue.” The ads are intended to overcome that fatigue by reminding everyone of the importance of taking basic precautions.

Challenged by reporters on whether continuing to just encourage people to take precautions will be effective, Reynolds pointed again to Tuesday’s election results.

Iowans “agree with how we’ve handled COVID-19,” she said. “I believe that’s what the election said.”

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