Iowa has an ‘unprecedented number’ of unemployment claims and another new case of COVID-19, but testing remains limited

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Video still of Gov. Kim Reynolds, an ASL interpreter and Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend at the governor’s COVID-19 press conference on March 20, 2020.

“We are seeing an unprecedented number of claims,” Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said when asked about unemployment in Iowa at Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Friday afternoon press conference on COVID-19.

“It’s pretty staggering to see the number of claims that we’re receiving,” Townsend said. “Essentially, what we’re receiving on a daily basis is what we would receive in a busy month.”

But the director declined to provide the number of unemployment claims the office has received in recent days, or give a general estimate.

“We’re going to coordinate with the governor’s office and release those numbers next week,” she said.

Many restaurant workers have been among those applying for unemployment benefits, after the governor ordered all restaurants to discontinue dine-in service, in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Reynolds was asked at the press conference if she was considering using some of the $20 million emergency fund the Iowa Legislature approved, before it suspended its session on Monday, to assist the state’s restaurants and their laid-off workers.

“We are absolutely taking a look at all of that … I’m going to put together an economic recovery task force, so I can get a wide array of stakeholders from around the state around the table, and really talk about how we stand back up this economy,” Reynolds said.

The state’s low rate of testing for COVID-19 was another big topic at the governor’s Friday press conference, just as it was at the governor’s Thursday press conference. This time the governor was better prepared.

During her prepared remarks, Reynolds explained who state health officials are targeting for tests.

“At this time, testing is being prioritized for all hospitalized patients with a fever and respiratory failure, and no alternative diagnosis, older adults above the age of 60, with fever, cough or difficulty breathing, and underlying health conditions, like heart, lung, kidney diseases or weakened immune systems. Individuals with a fever or a respiratory illness who live in dormitories or long-term care residential treatment or correctional facilities; and essential services personnel with fever or respiratory illness, such as health care providers, fire, EMS, law enforcement and residential facility staff.”

Part of the reason for only testing a narrow range of people is that the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), like most such agencies around the country, believes the new coronavirus spreads the same way the flu virus does. But new research is calling that belief into question.

According to NPR,

New research suggests that the higher number of infections per coronavirus patient may be related to the frequency of presymptomatic transmission — when people who have been infected are not yet showing symptoms but in fact could be contagious. An analysis of data from China found that 13% of cases were likely caused by people spreading coronavirus before they started coughing and feeling achy.

By contrast, flu is most contagious in the three or four days after symptoms begin, according to the CDC, and presymptomatic transmission doesn’t seem to be a major driver of new cases.

This new research was not brought up at the press conference, but Reynolds did say that the state’s criteria for determining who to test may change, as more information becomes available.

In her prepared remarks, the governor said, “As of noon today, the State Hygienic Lab has testing supplies on-hand to test 620 individuals. That supply changes as in-stock supplies are used, and more supplies are received.”

Later in the press conference, a reporter asked if the state has estimated how many Iowans COVID-19 may affect. Reynolds turned the question over to IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

“We don’t have modeling like that that we would share at this time,” Reisetter said.

Based on the current number of Illinois residents who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 — a total of 585 as of Friday afternoon — and estimates that as many as 1.7 million adults in the state could become infected with the coronavirus over the course of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a “stay at home” order on Friday. It requires almost all the state’s residents to remain in their homes and will be in effect from Saturday, March 21, through April 7.

Pritzker issued his order less than 24 hours after California’s governor placed the same restriction on his state’s residents.

Asked at her press conference what advice she has for Iowans who live across the Mississippi River from Illinois, Reynolds responded, “It’s the same thing I’ve been saying every single press conference. If you’re sick, stay home. If you have a cough, a fever, breathing issues, you need to call your clinician to walk through the assessment.”

Earlier on Friday, IDPH reported a new case of COVID-19 in Iowa. The infected individual is between the ages of 41 and 60, and lives in Allamakee County. Two previous cases have been reported in that county, which is in the northeastern corner of the state.

The new case brings the total number of Iowans diagnosed with the disease to 45.

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