Gov. Reynolds relaxes COVID-19 quarantine guidelines for schools

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Iowa schools will no longer be required to follow the CDC’s COVID-19 quarantine guidelines, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced at her news conference on Tuesday.

Previously, students and staff who were in close contact with someone who tested positive were supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days. Close contact is defined as being within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more. This is what the CDC still recommends.

Now, as long as “both the infectious individual and the close contacts are wearing face coverings consistently and correctly” the self-quarantine recommended by the CDC is unnecessary, according to the new guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health. Instead, the individuals who were exposed to the infected individual should just monitor themselves for symptoms of the virus.

In addition to schools, the relaxed quarantine guidelines apply to all “non-health care, non-residential settings,” including businesses and child care centers. But, according to the governor, the change was done at the urging of school administrators.

Reynolds said during her news conference that school superintendents had complained that the CDC-endorsed quarantine requirement had led to schools “having to quarantine a disproportionately high number of students when just a few positive cases have been identified.”

The governor did not say how many school superintendents had complained about the quarantine rules but called it “a common frustration” among those she had spoken with.

IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati, who spoke about the quarantine change at the news conference, acknowledged the new guidance doesn’t meet CDC standards, but Pedati said “we don’t frequently see additional infections in situation where people have been wearing face coverings.”

Pedati said the change was supported by data IDPH gathered by comparing four school districts in Sioux County, where the 14-day average positivity rate in COVID-19 tests was 27.9 percent on Tuesday.

One of the school districts requires students and staff to wear face coverings, the other three don’t. According to Pedati, the three schools with no face covering requirement had “30 to 130 percent higher rates of new COVID cases,” thereby demonstrating the effectiveness of face coverings.

Pedati said she had looked to the experiences of Nebraska and Wyoming, two states that had already implemented the relaxed quarantine guidelines Iowa had now adopted.

In its daily update of COVID-19 spread, the New York Times ranks Nebraska and Wyoming, along with Iowa, among the states where “new cases are higher and staying high.”

Pedati also cited the results of one study of customers at a hair salon in Missouri, where face masks are used, as justification for the change.

“I don’t want to insinuate that there is zero risk associated with this. Right?” Pedati said about the change. “There’s also some risk associated with most things in life, but we want people to understand what that risk is, and what they can do to protect themselves.”

The doctor reiterated the advice that IDPH and the governor have offered since the beginning of the pandemic: practice social distancing, wash hands frequently and disinfect commonly touched surfaces. She also said the newly-relaxed quarantine guidelines highlight the effectiveness of wearing face coverings in reducing the spread of the virus.

The governor was asked if face masks would be mandated in schools, since the new guidelines are based on the face masks being effective.

“No, it’s not a mandate,” Reynolds said. “This new guidance is not a mandate, it’s guidance. So schools will have the ability to decide whether they’re going to practice this or not.”

Asked how it is possible to make sure face coverings are being worn “consistently and correctly” so quarantining isn’t necessary under the new guidance, the governor replied, “Well, you know, I have to put some trust in the superintendents who are running these schools and the school boards.”

That Reynolds doesn’t trust local school districts to set their own standards regarding in-person instruction during the pandemic has, of course, been a source of frustration for the state’s larger school districts, including the Iowa City Community School District.

The question of mandating face masks also came up regarding the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases in northwestern Iowa. At the beginning of her news conference, during her prepared remarks, Reynolds said this surge was different than the ones seen in college communities like Iowa City and Ames.

“Rather than positivity cases [sic] being driven by young adults and those under the age of 40, new COVID cases in northwest Iowa and other small counties are more evenly distributed across age groups,” the governor said.

Reynolds said contact tracing showed those cases “aren’t really tied to a specific event or activity.”

“Rather, as more people get back to life as normal, the virus is simply spreading from person to person during the course of normal daily activities.”

Asked if she would require face masks or impose any other restriction — such as closing bars and clubs like she has done in Johnson and Story counties — the governor said no.

She did say that two test sites in Sioux County would begin receiving testing supplies from Test Iowa. The governor said she was also encouraging people in the counties experiencing the surge to follow the basic guidelines regarding hygiene and social distancing.

On Tuesday, IDPH reported another 667 Iowans tested positive for COVID-19 during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. The newly reported cases include 11 residents of Johnson County and 27 residents of Linn County.

During the same period, IDPH reported another seven Iowans had died of the virus, including one resident of Linn County. At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the state’s COVID-19 death toll stood at 1,324.

After the governor’s news conference, IDPH released the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report, which was shared with Iowa officials on Sunday.

According to the report, Iowa had the “6th highest rate [of new cases of COVID-19] in the country” last week. Once again, the report recommended a statewide mask mandate. It also recommended the state “rapidly scale up testing.”

“Test positivity and case rates have been sustained at the highest levels during the past four weeks, putting Iowa in a vulnerable position going into the fall and winter,” according to the task force.

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