Gov. Reynolds boasts about returning $95 million in federal COVID-19 aid, rejecting migrant children during Fox News forum

Gov. Kim Reynolds is introduced during a segment of the Ingraham Angle on Fox News, Thursday, April 29, 2021.

Gov. Kim Reynolds boasted to an audience of Fox News fans in Orlando, Florida on Thursday night that she had rejected $95 million in pandemic relief funds from the CDC. The Iowa Department of Public Health informed the CDC of that decision on April 23, but the governor had not previously disclosed that she approved IDPH declining the $95,029,161 Iowa had been offered to set up a testing program to detect asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 in schools.

Reynolds made her remarks on the Fox News show hosted by Laura Ingraham. Thursday night’s show was a town hall-style program featuring Reynolds and four other Republican governors, Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas, Tate Reeves of Mississippi and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska. All of the governors were very vocal Trump supporters, and all of them instituted only minimal COVID-19 mitigation efforts in their states.

Ingraham’s attitude on COVID-19 mitigation was obvious from her opening remarks, when she described the scene at her event by saying “Most of the audience is maskless, which I love to see,” and introduced the governors as leaders who “preserved our God-given freedoms … while others were eager to take them away.”

It was while Ricketts was complaining President Biden doesn’t understand how to handle the pandemic “because he lives in the bubble in D.C.” that Reynolds announced she had rejected the $95 million.

“I think he thinks the COVID [sic] just started,” Reynolds said. “I just returned $95 million dollars because they sent an additional $95 million dollars to the state of Iowa to get our kids back in the classroom by doing surveillance testing. And I said, “We’ve been in the classroom since August. Here’s your $95 million back.’”

That’s not what happened.

After Reynolds’ appearance on Fox, the governor’s office provided KCRG-TV with a copy of the April 23 letter IDPH interim director Kelly Garcia sent to the CDC. (Garcia is the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, but has also served as interim IDPH director for nine months. Despite the pandemic, IDPH has not had a fulltime director since July 31, 2020.)

In the letter, Garcia said Iowa has “ample funding and testing capacity available to school districts in Iowa” and noted that so far “no Iowa schools have claimed expenses for testing supplies or services.”

Garcia asked twice in the letter for the CDC to reconsider the conditions under which it awarded Iowa the $95 million, and if it would be possible for the Reynolds administration to keep the money and spend it on something else.

In other words, Reynolds didn’t defiantly say, “Here’s your money back.” Instead, she said the state wanted money, just not for its intended purpose of setting up a surveillance testing program for schools.

Iowa has never had large-scale surveillance testing for COVID-19, which could detect asymptomatic cases of the virus, and create a more accurate picture of how COVID-19 is spreading in a state. Public health experts recommend using surveillance testing as a way of staying ahead of virus spread and creating more effective mitigation efforts. IDPH has conducted surveillance at certain meat-processing plants and long-term care facilities, and only in response to outbreaks that were already known to be severe.

The $95 million could have been used for surveillance testing at both public and private schools, as well as at city-sponsored programs, such as recreational and enrichment activities, aimed at K-12 students. On Jan. 29, Reynolds signed into law a bill requiring all school districts to provide 100 percent in-person instruction to any student whose parents request it, regardless of its possible impact on the spread of COVID-19 in a school or a community. The state, however, left efforts to limit the spread of the disease, including testing, in the hands of the districts.

Dr. Eli Perencevich, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology in the UI Carver College of Medicine, was a leading critic of Reynolds’ decision to strip local school boards of the authority to make decisions about putting students in classrooms during the pandemic. In comments provided to Bleeding Heartland, Perencevich said it’s “very disappointing to see that the Governor has been sitting on $95 million that could’ve been used to make our K-12 schools and school athletic activities more safe.”

“For the governor it’s always appeared that the science book on COVID-19 was closed in spring 2020. Iowa didn’t learn and the state didn’t adapt since that time,” he said. “There’s no better example than the state forcing 100% in person K-12 classes right as the science was solidifying around the fact that children, particularly older children, catch COVID and spread it equally to adults. In addition we know that the newer variants like B117 spread more easily and may be more deadly.”

In a tweet, Sen. Zach Wahls of Coralville, the leader of the Democrats in the Iowa Senate, compared turning down money for a testing program to “drilling holes in a sinking boat.”

Wahls and other Democrats have been pressing for more legislative oversight of how Reynolds is spending federal pandemic relief. The Republican leaders who control the Iowa Legislature have declined to do so, despite the U.S. Treasury Department making Reynolds refund $21 million in misappropriated federal pandemic relief funds last year.

Reynolds allocated that $21 million for payments on a new computer system for the state. Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand identified that use of federal pandemic relief as illegal in an Oct. 16 letter to the Iowa Department of Management, and pointed out that the funds could only be spent on expenses related to COVID-19. Reynolds had awarded a no-bid contract for the computer system in 2019, months before the pandemic.

The governor insisted for two months she had not misappropriated the $21 million, before refunding it shortly before the federal government’s deadline to do so in December.

Sand also issued a statement on Friday regarding Reynolds’ decision to forego the $95 million for surveillance testing.

This makes no sense. Governor Reynolds’ partisan stunt just cost Iowans $95 million. That money could have created hundreds of strong-paying jobs to administer and assist in testing at schools, sporting events, graduations, and in contact tracing. Iowans would have then spent much of the money from those paychecks in businesses and communities still struggling to recover from the pandemic. All of that would have been great for Iowans and good for the state’s bottom line.

Turning down the $95 million in federal aid also puts students, teachers, administrators and other school staff at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

The response of the five governors to COVID-19 was only one of the topics covered on Ingraham’s program. The subject of Reynolds’ refusal to allow migrant children who have arrived alone at the southern border of the U.S. to be temporarily housed in Iowa came up as well.

“This is not our problem. This is the president’s problem,” the governor said in an interview earlier this month.

Ingraham portrayed Reynolds’ refusal to aid the migrant children as a courageous stance.

“Gov. Reynolds, you have said definitely that you will not take migrant children the government has requested to be placed in Iowa communities,” the Fox News host said. “You’re getting pushback from all the usual groups on that.”

Actually, Reynolds received widespread criticism for her decision. Many people contrasted Reynolds’ attitude with that of her Republican predecessor, Gov. Robert Ray. Iowa earned an international reputation as a welcoming and compassionate state in the 1970s because of Ray’s work on helping refugees from Southeast Asia settle in the state.

“I push back and say this administration is heartless,” Reynolds said, referring to the Biden administration, not hers. “They’ve created this crisis at the border, they are putting these children at risk by the policies that they’ve eliminated that we all know were working.”

The governor did not name any of the policies she believes were working, but went on to say, “I’m the governor of the state of Iowa, and my number-one responsibility is to protect the health and safety of Iowans. And it would be irresponsible of me not to keep that in the forefront of every decision I made.”

Reynolds made that remark about the health and safety of Iowans being her top priority before the part of the show when she revealed her administration had rejected $95 million for testing.

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