Gov. Reynolds relaxes some COVID-19 restrictions as deaths from the virus surpass 3,000

Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses reporters during her Dec. 9 press conference. — video still

Iowa surpassed 3,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, but Gov. Kim Reynolds started her news conference late Wednesday morning by focusing on positive trends.

“We are now nearly two weeks out from the Thanksgiving holiday, and we continue to see the same slow, steady in new cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations that we have since mid-November,” she said. “However, it’s critical that these trends continue throughout this month and that we continue to reduce the trends further.”

The latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report on Iowa, sent to the state on Sunday and published by ABC News on Wednesday, also noted the state has seen an improvement in virus activity.

“Iowa has seen a decrease in new cases and a decrease in test positivity,” the report, dated Dec. 6, stated.

As more states experienced surges in new COVID cases, Iowa ranked 20th in the rate of new cases last week, a significant improvement over the previous week when the state ranked sixth for new cases. The improvement in Iowa’s ranking for test positivity was smaller, with the state going from seventh to 11th in the country.

According to the task force, Iowa had an average of 512 new cases of the virus per 100,000 residents last week, while the national average was 385 cases per 100,000 residents.

There was also a slight improvement at the county-level, according to the report. In the previous report, 97 counties were in the task force’s red zone with 101 or more new COVID cases per 100,000 residents. In the new report, 94 counties, including Linn County, were in the red zone. Three counties — Johnson, Poweshiek and Franklin — had between 51 and 100 new cases per 100,000 residents, and were therefore in the orange zone. Two counties, Shelby and Greene, were in the yellow zone, with between 26 and 50 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Deaths were high last week, with Iowa having a rate of COVID fatalities that was almost twice the national average, according to the report. Iowa had a rate of 8.1 deaths per 100,000 residents, while the country as a whole had a rate of 4.2 deaths per 100,000 residents.

The Iowa Department of Public Health finally changed its method of reporting COVID-19 deaths to match CDC standards this week. Its update on Monday night included 175 deaths, some going back to July, that did not meet its previous criteria for inclusion in the statistics IDPH reported to the public. Those cases drove the number of reported deaths to a new one-day record of 202. But the impact of the change to reporting all deaths with COVID-19 listed as a cause on the death certificate was also obvious on Wednesday, even without the addition of months-old cases.

IDPH reported another 102 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday morning, increasing the state’s death toll from the virus to 3,021.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force said it was important for Iowa to take decisive action to control the spread of the virus.

Mitigation efforts must increase… with an additional focus on uniform behavioral changes including masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene and aggressive testing to find asymptomatic individuals responsible for the majority of infectious spread.

The report did say it was encouraging that the number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in Iowa had “plateaued,” but warned “this should be viewed very cautiously since there was a 40% reduction of PCR testing over the past week.”

The task force recommended limiting the dine-in capacity of restaurants to less than 25 percent and closing or limiting the hours of bars “until cases and test positivity decrease to the yellow zone.”

Only Shelby and Greene counties would be free from those restrictions if Gov. Reynolds decided to follow the tasks force’s recommendations. But the governor is not following those recommendations.

Reynolds did announce that she is extending her latest emergency health proclamation, which was scheduled to expire at midnight on Thursday, until next Wednesday. But that extension also loosens some of the mitigation steps that have been in place since Nov. 16.

“Organized sports and recreational events, including bowling leagues, may resume for youths and adults, but spectators are still limited to two per participant,” the governor announced during the news conference.

She also announced a relaxation in the restrictions on elective medical procedures put in place to help conserve PPE. Instead of limiting such procedures by 50 percent, they will now be limited by 25 percent.

“To ensure better consistency among restaurants, bars and other venues that serve alcohol, including casinos, last call for in-person service will be at 10 p.m.” the governor said, explaining the other significant change included in the extension.

Reynolds also announced the state is paying for 104 nurses to help cover staff shortages at hospitals around the state through the end of the month. There were 894 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among hospitalized patients in Iowa, IDPH reported on Wednesday morning. One hundred and forty-one of those patients had been admitted during the previous 24 hours, and 196 were being treated in intensive care units.

The state is also providing a 30-day supply of PPE to all of Iowa’s 432 long-term care facilities at no cost to the facilities, Reynolds announced.

An hour before the 11 a.m. news conference, IDPH was reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in 141 of the state’s 432 long-term care facilities. The governor said that if delivery of COVID-19 vaccines begins as anticipated next week, vaccinations of long-term care residents and their immediate caregivers could begin by Dec. 28.

Also at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, IDPH reported another 2,545 Iowans, including 57 residents of Johnson County and 92 residents of Linn County, had tested positive for COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours. The newly reported cases increased the total number of confirmed cases reported in the state since March 8 to 248,782.

During her news conference, Reynolds made pushing for all Iowa schools to resume 100 percent in-person instruction a main focus. The governor did acknowledge “it was important for parents to have an option to go 100 percent online,” in case the student or a parent had underlying health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus. But now, Reynolds said, “I think parents also need the opportunity to have the decision to go 100 percent in the classroom.”

Whenever she discusses the impact of the pandemic on schools, Reynolds always focuses on studies that have shown children seldom develop severe cases of COVID-19. But children can transmit the virus, and they are potentially vulnerable in the school buildings.

In the report on Iowa’s COVID-19 vaccination plans released by IDPH on Friday, the department listed “teachers/school staff” as part of the group that should receive the vaccine after frontline healthcare workers, long-term care residents and their caregivers are vaccinated. Reynolds was asked on Wednesday, if teachers and school staff will be included in the so-called Phase 1-B of the vaccinations.

The governor said decisions like that will be made by the Infectious Disease Advisory Council (IDAC), which IDPH is assembling.

“We’ve had a lot of correspondence about different workforce [sic] that feel that they’re essential workers,” Reynolds said. “So, we’re collecting all of those and the group will start to work through some of those decision points.”

IDAC’s first meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, according to interim IDPH Director Kelly Garcia.

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