Gov. Reynolds scorns CDC guidance as ‘not grounded in reality,’ blames immigrants for rising COVID infections

John Martinek/Little Village

The CDC issued new COVID-19 guidance on Wednesday, modifying its previous announcement regarding mask-wearing. Because of lagging vaccination rates in parts of the country, and the rapid spread of the virus’s Delta variant, the agency said it was now recommending that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in public areas with “high” or “substantial” rates of virus spread.

According to the latest county-level data from the CDC, Linn County is experiencing substantial spread of the virus, and therefore everyone should mask up in indoor public settings. Johnson County currently has a moderate level of virus spread. The CDC has an online mapping tool that displays virus activity levels by county.

CDC map of county-level COVID-19 spread in Iowa, July 21 through July 27, 2921.

“C.D.C. officials also recommended universal masking for teachers, staff, students and visitors in schools, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission of the virus,” the New York Times reported. “With additional precautions, schools nonetheless should return to in-person learning in the fall, according to agency officials.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds responded immediately to the new guidance, issuing a statement in which she said the CDC recommendation was “not grounded in reality or common sense” and made it clear she will not institute any mask requirements in the state.

The Biden Administration’s new COVID-19 guidance telling fully vaccinated Iowans to now wear masks is not only counterproductive to our vaccination efforts, but also not grounded in reality or common sense. I’m concerned that this guidance will be used as a vehicle to mandate masks in states and schools across the country, something I do not support.

The vaccine remains our strongest tool to combat COVID-19, which is why we are going to continue to encourage everyone to get the vaccine.

I am proud that we recently put new laws in place that will protect Iowans against unnecessary government mandates in our schools and local governments. As I have throughout this pandemic, I trust Iowans to do the right thing.

In Iowa, Reynolds’ reaction to the guidance is the only one that really matters to determine whether state or local governments can act on it. School boards can no longer require students, staff or visitors to wear masks on school property, because of a bill Republican lawmakers pushed through on the final day of this year’s session of the Iowa Legislature. Reynolds signed the bill into law as soon as it was delivered to her office.

The same new law also prohibits local governments from creating any mask mandate stricter than whatever mandate the state government has. The state of Iowa, of course, has no mask mandate, and the governor said during a news conference on Wednesday she will not impose one, despite an increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the state.

Reynolds called the news conference to highlight the end of her deployment of Iowa State Troopers to Texas in response to general request for assistance from that state’s governor, her fellow Republican Greg Abbot. (According to estimates provided on Wednesday, the deployment will cost Iowa approximately $300,000.) Even though she was speaking about border issues, Reynolds did not repeat her claim from earlier in the week that immigrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border are “part of the problem” regarding the surge in new COVID-19 cases in the country.

“Part of the problem is the southern border is open and we’ve got 88 countries that are coming across the border and they don’t have vaccines so none of them are vaccinated and they’re getting dispersed throughout the country,” Reynolds told reporters on Tuesday at news conference on a program for at-risk youth in Des Moines.

Asked what the governor was basing that claim on, Reynolds’ spokesperson sent reporters a link to a Fox News story.

In a written statement responding to Reynolds’ claim, Araveli Goode and Patricia Ritchie, the chair and vice chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Latinx Caucus, said they were “appalled to hear the Governor imply that people seeking asylum are causing the spread of the Delta variant. This is an absurd and divisive comment designed to distract from the Governor’s own failures and mismanagement.”

Responding to reporters’ questions about the CDC’s revised mask guidance at her news conference on Wednesday, Reynolds repeated a slightly garbled version of the written statement her office issued. The governor also said “it’s frustrating, it’s confusing” that the CDC has changed recommendations regarding masks as the nature of virus spread changed, and as the highly contagious Delta variant becomes increasingly dominant.

The governor, as she has done throughout most of the pandemic, dismissed the idea that requiring masks in any public setting, regardless of the rate of virus spread or percentage of the population vaccinated, would help, and suggested the CDC doesn’t know what it is talking about.

“I haven’t seen the data,” Reynolds said about the CDC. “They’re not really forthcoming on a lot of data that they’re using to make this change in the guidance.”

Public health experts who have reviewed the data on the spread of the Delta variant and the use of masks as a mitigation effort have come out in support of the CDC’s revised guidance.

Reynolds said the most effective approach to mitigating the spread of the virus is to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated through public service announcements and her own statements.

“We’re telling people to get vaccinated, first and foremost. I’ve been very clear about that,” the governor said.

This is not true.

Reynolds has consistently backpedaled in her public announcements about COVID-19 vaccines by immediately adding that vaccination is an individual choice, and each person knows what’s best for their own health. She has refused to answer, or even address, questions regarding politically motivated vaccine refusal, even after the Iowa Poll found that 45 percent of people who self-identified as Trump supporters said they have no intention of being vaccinated.

Reynolds has also stoked vaccine-related fears by demanding the Iowa Legislature pass a bill banning “vaccine passports,” which the Biden administration had already announced it would not introduce. The bill the governor signed into law would have no impact on federal policy, but does make it illegal for Iowa schools and colleges to require students, staff and visitors to have proof of COVID-19 vaccinations. Schools and colleges can still require proof of all the other vaccinations they routinely require — only requesting proof of COVID-19 vaccinations is forbidden.

The same bill created penalties for any business open to the public — except for healthcare providers — that requires people entering its premises to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The governor and Republican lawmaker, however, decided not to interfere with the ability of employers to tell workers what do to, and allow employers to require workers be vaccinated.

Despite this, 17 Republican members of the Iowa Legislature sent a letter to Trinity Health, which operates seven hospitals in the state, after the company announced earlier this month it would require all staff members to vaccinated against COVID-19. The letter contained dozens of questions and asked Trinity to provide proof of the effectiveness of vaccinations.

One signer, Rep. Jeff Shipley, told the Des Moines Register that the letter, which stated Trinity’s decision was causing “confusion and distress,” was “not criticizing” Trinity’s decision.

“We are just trying to get more information,” Shipley said.

Two days after his comments were printed by the Register, Shipley was a featured speaker at a rally protesting vaccinations at the Iowa State Capitol, where he called any vaccine mandate “a crime against humanity.”

Shipley was also a featured speaker at rally of anti-vaccination advocates at the State Capitol last year, when the legislature reconvened after adjourning due to the pandemic. At that event, Shipley mocked people who wore face coverings to mitigate virus spread, claimed “this virus isn’t even killing anybody,” said quarantining patients is ineffective and “the ventilators are killing people.”

Another of the 17 signatories, Sen. Jason Schwarz, the chair of the Commerce and Government Oversight Committees, was more forthright. He said he wanted Trinity to rescind its vaccine mandate, according to Radio Iowa.

“I’d like to prevent other employers from making this same mistake,” Schultz added.

Vaccination rates have plummeted in Iowa since the initial surge when vaccines became widely available in April. The Iowa Department of Public Health reported last week that 38,730 doses of the state’s COVID-19 supply are set to expire at the end of this week, and another 178,651 will reach the end of their shelf-life at the end of August.

Reynolds has not spoken out about statements from Iowa Republicans or national figures, such as Donald Trump, creating doubt about the effectiveness or safety of COVID-19 vaccines. But at her news conference on Wednesday, she did push back against criticism from Democrats regarding her failure to fill vacancies on the Iowa Board of Health.

The board currently cannot meet, because it lacks a quorum. The 11-member board canceled its planned July meeting because it had seven vacancies.

Reynolds dismissed the problem, claiming concerns regarding the board were overblown, and said there was a lot of “misinformation” regarding its status. She did not, however, deny the board cannot currently meet because it is lacking members. The governor said she would soon appoint new members so the board.

It didn’t come up at the news conference, but it is worth noting that Iowa has now gone an entire year without a full-time IDPH director, despite the ongoing pandemic. The last director stepped down at the end of July 2020. Since then, the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services has served as acting director, while also maintaining her full-time position at Human Services.

After trending downward, the number of new cases of COVID-19 in Iowa has increased over the last three weeks. In its weekly update of coronavirus data on Wednesday, IDPH reported another 2,158 Iowans had tested positive for the virus during the previous seven days, and 13 more deaths had been reported during that period. The state’s 14-day positivity average was 5.7 percent, above the 5 percent threshold at which the CDC and WHO recommend a community take virus precautions.

A total of 157 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday. COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled since the beginning of July.

The Register reported two weeks ago that spokespeople for three of Iowa’s largest healthcare systems said “Almost all of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 since the spring have been unvaccinated against the disease.” It was necessary to get the information from healthcare providers, because IDPH does not collect information regarding the vaccination status of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

In its weekly update on Wednesday, IDPH reported that 47 percent of Iowans were fully vaccinated, and another 3 percent had received one dose of a two-dose vaccine.

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