‘Only you know what’s best for you and your family’: Individuals, business owners given reins as Iowa’s cases near 15,000

Dr. Caitlin Pedati (tuning in via Zoom) and Gov. Kim Reynolds on May 18. — video stills

“We continue to trend in the right direction, further validating that the time is right to move into the recovery phase and begin reopening Iowa,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said at her press conference on Monday.

The governor did not mention she received a report from a team of researchers at the University of Iowa College of Public Health on May 5 that warned her relaxing COVID-19 restrictions will likely increase the spread of the virus.

“The full effects of reopening are not expected to be observed for several weeks,” the report said.

Despite multiple requests from the Des Moines Register, the governor’s office did not release the report until Friday afternoon, hours after the governor’s press conference that day.

Although she didn’t mention the report, Reynolds did make an oblique reference to it, suggesting the sort of analysis and modeling of virus spread it contained are of little use, even though the Iowa Department of Public Health commissioned it.

“While we do refer to models and projections from external partners and other resources, and appreciate the information that they provide, we know they’re based on assumptions at a certain point in time,” she said. “So, we rely more heavily on our real-time data and our expert team of epidemiologist, the Department of Public Health, who are all studying it every day.”

Reynolds said it is the expansion of the testing in the state, and contract tracing after someone tests positive, that will allow businesses to reopen safely. But according to the governor, that doesn’t necessarily mean businesses should immediately reopen.

“The decision to ease restrictions that allow some businesses to reopen at limited capacity is not a mandate to do so,” she said. “Nor is it requirement that Iowans dine out, shop or do anything they’re not ready to do.”

Reynolds made it clear she considers it the responsibility of individuals, not public health officials, to make these decisions.

“Only you know what’s best for you and your family,” she said during her prepared remarks.

That’s a standard line used by politicians when talking about any number of issues, but is somewhat unexpected from a governor addressing issues of public health during a pandemic.

When it comes to reopening businesses, the governor expressed confidence that owners and companies would do everything necessary to ensure the safety of the public and their workers.

“For the business owners that are eager to open their doors, bring their employees back to work and begin doing business again, I’m confident that they’re doing so in a safe and responsible way,” Reynolds said. “Their livelihoods are on the line, and they aren’t willing to risk the health of their staff or their customers, which is oftentimes like family.”

Reynolds has been saying the same thing about the state’s meat processing plants throughout the pandemic, even though cases of COVID-19 have been reported at 11 of the state’s 18 plants, and four plants have enough cases to meet IDPH’s strict definition of an outbreak.

Tyson’s meat processing plant in Waterloo, 501 N Elk Run Rd, on May 10, 2020. — Sophie McClatchey/Little Village

One of those four plants is the Tyson Foods meat processing facility in Perry, Iowa. During the governor’s press conference on May 5, IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter disclosed that 58 percent of the workers tested at the Perry plant were positive for the virus. According to Reisetter, the plant had a total of 730 cases.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) received a complaint April 11 claiming that working conditions at the Tyson plant in Perry were leading to the spread of COVID-19 among its workers. The complaint was received just days after Tyson temporarily closed its plant in Columbus Junction due to a COVID-19 outbreak (Reisetter said on May 5 that 221 workers at the Columbus Junction plant had tested positive).

According to documents obtained by the AP, it took IOSHA nine days to contact the Perry plant after receiving the complaint. The plant didn’t respond for another eight days.

“Plant manager Mike Grothe responded in a letter received April 28 that acknowledged social distancing was difficult in food plants but that Tyson implemented ‘creative solutions,’” the AP reported.

IOSHA accepted Grothe’s statements about conditions at the plant and closed the case the same day it received his letter, without conducting an inspection of the plant.

According to the AP, “An aide to Iowa Commissioner of Labor Rod Roberts said the complaint was handled in accordance with interim federal guidance that said routine complaints of coronavirus exposure would ‘not normally result in an on-site inspection,’ in part to protect inspectors.”

While problems at meat processing plants have been common during the 11 weeks since COVID-19 was first detected in the state, the governor addressed a new problem at her press conference on Monday.

Last week, the CDC issued an advisory about Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a condition associated with COVID-19 infections.

“Instead of targeting lungs as the primary coronavirus infection does, it causes inflammation throughout the body and can cripple the heart,” the New York Times explained in a story about a 14-year-old who was diagnosed with the syndrome. “It has been compared to a rare childhood inflammatory illness called Kawasaki disease, but doctors have learned that the new syndrome affects the heart differently and erupts mostly in school-age children, rather than infants and toddlers.”

The syndrome is still considered quite rare, although 137 potential cases have been identified in New York City. It usually appears weeks after an infection in a child who did not display symptoms of COVID-19.

IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati joined Reynolds press conference using Zoom to discuss MIS-C (Pedati is self-isolating after having contact with a White House aide who later tested positive for COVID-19.)

Pedati said IDPH had received reports on Friday of two children in eastern Iowa who potentially have the syndrome. Both children are in stable condition, she said.

According to Pedati, IDPH is “working with our clinical and local public health providers to gather more information.” The syndrome has also been added to the list of illnesses that doctors must report to the department.

Reynolds was asked what schools should do regarding the syndrome as they work their reopening plans for the fall. The governor turned the question over to Pedati.

“I think it’s an important thing to recognize again, just as we have all along, that as we learn more, we need to continue to collaborate to better understand these things and what we can do to manage them,” Pedati said.

She did not offer any advice on what schools should do.

On Monday, IDPH reported another 304 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including five residents of Johnson County and three residents of Linn County. The newly reported cases brings the state total to 14,955.

The Iowa Department of Correction (IDOC) updated its COVID-19 information page on Sunday afternoon, to indicate a staff member at Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison has tested positive for the virus. It is the first case of COVID-19 reported at the maximum security prison. According to IDOC’s COVID-19 information page, only five of the prison’s 676 inmates have been tested so far.

IDPH reported on Monday that four more Iowans have died from the virus, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 355.

At her press conference, Reynolds announced IDPH is changing its COVID-19 website again, and changing how cases are reported.

“The biggest change you’ll notice is the case counts will now be updated in real-time throughout the day, so that you’ll be able to see the numbers coming in on a same-day basis,” she said. “Previously, we scheduled updates to happen at a specific time each day, so that new positive and negative cases could be reported daily, either at my press conference or by the media.”

“Because we’re moving to rolling updates in real-time, the need to provide new daily case counts is obsolete.”

Little Village will continue to provide daily case counts.

Near the end of her press conference, Reynolds was asked if she plans to extend the moratoriums on most evictions and utility disconnections that has been in place since March 20. Those protections, along with the moratorium on foreclosures declared on March 22, are scheduled to end on Wednesday, May 27.

“While we haven’t made a decision yet, we’re continuing to look at all aspects of the declaration that will expire next week and how we can move forward, again in a responsible way, being mindful of the impact that the pandemic has had on Iowans across the state,” the governor said.

Reynolds said she and her advisers “are looking at a couple of different scenarios,” including one in which the Iowa Economic Development Authority provides grants to apartment building owners. The governor did not explain what the grant idea involved.

On Monday afternoon, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office announced it was ready to resume evictions and foreclosures.

Operating under the assumption that Governor Reynolds will not be extending her emergency proclamations halting most foreclosure sales and evictions, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office is planning to resume these court-ordered processes on Wednesday, May 27th.

The office said it would “ensure social distancing” by holding its foreclosure sales outdoors.

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