Gov. Kim Reynolds started her news conference on Thursday by citing a COVID-19 development she considered encouraging.
“Hospitalizations remain high across the state, but yesterday was the first day in weeks where we saw a slight decrease in the overall number of Iowans hospitalized,” Reynolds said. “So this gives us hope as well, but one day is far, far, far from a downward trend.”
The Iowa Department of Public Health was reporting 1,516 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Thursday morning, a decrease of 11 patients from the record-setting total it reported on Wednesday morning. The number of patients being treated in intensive care units increased, however, from 283 to 286.
“Over the next week it will be critical that we see hospitalization rates begin to stabilize,” the governor said.
The news Reynolds shared about the state’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities was less encouraging.
At 10 a.m. on Thursday, IDPH reported 94 of the state’s long-term care facilities had active COVID-19 outbreaks. “Later today, an additional 20 long-term care facility outbreaks will be reported. 114 active outbreaks,” the governor said.
IDPH only reports that COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in a long-term care facility if the situation in that facility meets the departments very narrow definition of an “outbreak”: three or more residents testing positive for the virus. Most states recognize COVID-19 cases among staff when determining if an outbreak is occurring. Minnesota, for example, considers any long-term care facility to have an outbreak if any resident, staff member or contract worker tests positive.
In response to the growing number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities, Reynolds said, IDPH is offering guidance to the facilities regarding emergency staffing plans. The governor also announced she is dedicating $14 million in federal funds provided through the CARES Act to long-term care facilities “to assist with the increased cost related to testing and staffing.”
The governor didn’t mention the ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa’s prisons during her news conference. According to the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC), on Thursday there were 611 inmates with active cases of the virus, and 124 staff members with confirmed or self-reported infections.
On Wednesday, IDOC reported an inmate incarcerated at Anamosa State Penitentiary died from the virus. It was the eighth COVID-19 death reported among the state’s prison population. Earlier this week, IDOC reported the first death of staff member attributed to the virus.
According to the department, the deceased was a staff member at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. The Nov. 16 death went largely unnoticed by the news media, likely because it was only mentioned in a footnote to IDOC’s daily list of COVID-19 cases. When an inmates dies, the department issues a news release.
The governor focused much of her news conference Thursday on repeating the basic precautions people should take to help limit the spread of COVID-19. She even brought IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati to the podium to repeat those precautions as well.
The governor and Pedati both listed frequent handwashing and social distancing as important actions; Pedati, who wore a mask while speaking at the news conference, included wearing a face covering in her list.
Pedati also stressed the importance of self-quarantining at home for 14 days if you believe you have been exposed to the virus, even if you’ve tested negative for COVID-19. She also reminded people who have tested positive that they need to self-isolate, which involves not only staying home but also avoiding contact with other members of your household.
Pedati said people with confirmed cases of the virus should self-isolate “for a 10-day period either from the beginning of your symptoms or from the day you got that test positive.” CDC guidance says that self-isolation should last at least 10 days, and a person should have no a fever, without using any fever-reducing medications, for at least 24 hours before ending self-isolation.
The doctor also said it was important that people who do test positive or have been exposed to the virus cooperate with contact tracers. Pedati said the state is currently focusing its contract-tracing efforts on household groups, since much of the current surge in the community spread of COVID-19 is the result of household gatherings.
Last week, Reynolds announced the state was hiring more contact tracers, but did not provide a number for current staff or intended hires. Asked about the number of people the state has working as contact tracers, Pedati said there are “about 100.” She also said IDPH anticipates hiring another 20 starting next week.
According to guidelines from the National Association of County and City Health Officials, state public health agencies should have a minimum of 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents until the pandemic subsides. If IDPH reaches a total of 120 contact tracers, that will be slightly less than four contract tracers per 100,000 residents.
Reynolds said her message about the need for people to take action to limit the spread of COVID-19 will soon be boosted by the TV ad campaign she announced two weeks ago. During the news conference, the governor played the ad, which features herself, former Gov. Tom Vilsack, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran, former UI wrestling coach Dan Gable, Test Iowa nurse Katie Witt and Carson King.
Reynolds said the ads should begin running on television stations around the state next week and continue through mid-March.
At the end of the news conference, the governor was asked what her recommendation is regarding whether people should gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving.
“As you gather through the holiday — we put an indoor gathering limit in place just to try to do everything we can right now to minimize the spread — so just be conscientious of your surroundings, who you’re bringing in, and practice mitigation efforts,” she replied.
The governor’s most recent emergency health proclamation, issued on Wednesday to amend the emergency health proclamation she issued on Monday, does contain a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 15 people, although that ban has several exceptions.
But beyond any ban or other restriction, Reynolds said she is relying on people to follow common-sense precautions: “Iowans know what to do. They’ll do the right thing. They’re responsible.”
At 10 a.m. on Thursday morning, IDPH reported another 4,195 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19 during the preceding 24 hours. The newly confirmed cases included 135 residents of Johnson County and 265 residents of Linn County, and brought the total number of Iowans who have tested positive to 198,674.
IDPH also reported another 38 deaths from the virus between 10 a.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday, increasing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 2,102.