Gov. Reynolds seeks to reassure the public about the state’s response to COVID-19, as the number of cases in Iowa rises to 44

Video still of Gov. Kim Reynolds and Dr. Caitlin Pedati during the governor’s March 19, 2020 press conference. An ALS interpreter is in the foreground.

Almost the only new information presented at Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Thursday afternoon press conference on COVID-19 was the number of infected people in the state.

“So, through this afternoon, we have 44 cases positive,” the governor said, almost halfway through the half-hourlong press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston.

That’s an increase of six cases since the last update on Wednesday.

After the press conference, the governor’s office sent out a press release with more information on the new cases.

According to [the Iowa Department of Public Health], three individuals reside in Polk County, one adult 19-40, one middle aged adult 41-60, and one older adult 61-80. One adult 19-40 living in Muscatine County, one middle aged adult 41-60 living in Dubuque County; and one adult 19-40 living in Johnson County is an adult in [sic]. Two additional non-residents of Iowa tested positive at Iowa healthcare facilities for COVID-19.

The new Johnson County case brings the number of its resident diagnosed with COVID-19 to 22.

The press conference itself was a mixture of folksy rhetoric during Reynolds’ prepared remarks (“If your family is anything like mine…”), repetition of previously offered advice (if you feel ill, you should stay home and self-isolate) and somewhat vague answers from the governor and Dr. Caitlin Pedati, medical director of IDPH, in response to questions from the two reporters present.

In an effort to promote social distancing, only one two reporters — Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson and Dave Price of WHO-TV — were in the room, although other reporters were allowed to ask question via phone.

Asked by Henderson if medical facilities in Iowa have personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers providing care for COVID-19 patients or potentially infected individuals, Pedati responded by talking about the importance of thoughtfully using resources.

“I think that what we’ve recognized — the global environment, the national environment — is that there’s a lot of need around these supplies. And so we’ve helped our partners be forward-thinking, and thinking about ways to make prudent use of the supplies that we have. Thinking about ways to provide supplements when we can. And just wanting to be very thoughtful and careful about how we use all our healthcare resources.”

Asked by Price if there is shortage of PPE, Pedati basically repeated her previous answer. When Price asked the question again, Gov. Reynolds said, “No.”

“We’re just monitoring it on a daily basis,” the governor added.

The questions turned to the testing for COVID-19 being done in the state.

Earlier in the press conference, Pedati explained how most people — even most people feeling ill — will never need to be tested for the disease. That’s because for most people feeling ill, the recommended treatment — remain home, self-isolate, monitor symptoms — would be the same if they tested positive for COVID-19 or not, since only a small segment of the population is likely to become dangerously ill.

“When we think about doing a test in medicine — for any reason, for anyone — we want to make sure we’re doing a test because we’re going to take some step, some kind of action, or do something different with that information,” Pedati said. “That’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about COVID-19 or anything else.”

Pedati added that only testing individuals who meet certain criteria is a way “to make sure we’re making thoughtful use of our healthcare resources.”

Price asked Pedati what the current criteria are and if those criteria will be relaxed “as more tests and more testing sites become available.”

The doctor replied, “I think you’ve probably seen that we’ve sort of adjusting our testing approach and criteria, just like many other people over time. And there’s a couple of different factors that play into that.”

She did not explain what those different factors are, and instead repeated her earlier explanation that tests should only be conducted if they would lead to a different treatment of a patient’s condition.

“Without the testing, how does the state estimate the spread of the infection?” Price asked.

Pedati said the epidemiological model for estimating the spread of COVID-19 is similar to the model for estimating the spread of flu.

“We have ways of monitoring for illness activity,” Pedati said. The doctor did not explain what those ways are, or the definition of “illness activity” the IDPH is using. (According to the CDC, its U.S. Influenza Surveillance System largely relies on testing data to determine levels of “influenza-like illness activity” in the country.)

When asked if increasing the amount of testing in the state would produce more precise numbers of infected individuals, Pedati said, “While having those exact numbers is helpful, what you want to think through is ‘what are we doing with it?’ What’s the action at the end of the day?”

“And the ultimate public health action, from my perspective, is to keep as many people as healthy as I possibly can. And I know that I can get there, if we encourage and really reinforce that everybody who’s ill stays home.”

Price then asked the governor if increasing the amount of testing being done in the state is a priority for her.

“Well, we’re working on that every day,” Reynolds said.

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