Everyone from scientists to faith leaders speak out against plans to reopen Iowa, as research and new outbreaks come to light

IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter (right) discusses the state’s “guidance” for businesses in the forthcoming reopening process. — video still

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ press conference on Tuesday began on a grim note, as the governor announced another 508 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19. The number, however, could have been worse.

On Monday afternoon, Black Hawk County Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said 1,346 of the county’s residents have now tested positive for the virus. According to the totals published by the Iowa Department of Public Health on Tuesday, there are only 941 confirmed cases in the county.

At the press conference on Monday, IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter was asked about the discrepancy in the totals.

“Our reporting time frame cuts off at 10 o’clock the following morning,” she said. “So, the results that were reported today are results as of 10 o’clock a.m. yesterday.”

Egbuonye, on the other hand, was reporting up-to-date totals on Monday.

“We’ll catch up with them tomorrow in terms of the data that’s posted on the state website,” Reisetter said.

But that difference in numbers between Black Hawk County and IDPH wasn’t the biggest discrepancy in information the department is providing to the public that came to light on Tuesday.

Hours after the press conference concluded, IDPH finally provided the Des Moines Register with a copy of a 12-page research report from the University of Iowa College of Public Health featuring models projecting the spread of COVID-19 in the state. The newspaper first requested a copy of the report under Iowa’s Open Records Act last week.

“We have found evidence of a slowdown in infection and mortality rates due to social distancing policies, but not that a peak has been reached,” according to the report’s conclusion. After analyzing publicly available data, the researchers warned, “prevention measures should remain in place. Without such measures being continued, a second wave of infections is likely.”

IDPH was in possession of the report, along with a second research paper critiquing previous attempts at modeling COVID-19 spread in Iowa, days before Gov. Reynolds announced on Friday she was beginning to relax restrictions and reopen businesses in the state.

Map showing the 22 counties where all COVID-19 restrictions will remain in effect, while select businesses can reopen in the rest of the state on May 1. — Office of Gov. Kim Reynolds

Following a Register story about IDPH refusing to make the report public, Reisetter was asked about the report during the governor’s press conference on Monday. She spoke dismissively about it, as if it couldn’t be considered reliable because the researchers relied on public information.

“I think the white paper you’re referring to we received, I think, a copy of that early last week. Specifically that white paper looks at publicly available data. It wasn’t based on Iowa-specific information — that’s the third-phase of the project,” Reisetter said. “So, we don’t have those results yet.”

According to UI Professor Joe Cavanaugh, head of the biostatistics department at the College of Public Health and one of the principal authors of the report, the data contained in it is Iowa-specific.

IDPH didn’t sign a contract with the College of Public Health to do modeling work until April 7, almost exactly a month after the first Iowans tested positive for the disease. A week after the contract was signed, IDPH still hadn’t furnished researchers with the information the contract called for.

“We are just getting ready to provide the data,” Reisetter said on April 13.

Unsurprisingly, Reynolds has not publicly mentioned the report or that the experts the state has turned to for advice warned against the sort of partial reopening of selected businesses, including restaurants, in 77 counties on May 1 contained in a proclamation the governor signed on Monday.

The proclamation also exempted religious services statewide from the previously imposed restriction that limits public gatherings to 10 or fewer people. According to a letter published by an interfaith group of 21 religious leaders from across Iowa on Tuesday, they had no idea the governor was going to make that change.

“It was with surprise we learned of the governor’s proclamation, and, as such, we feel compelled to provide clarity and guidance of what it means for congregations to be faithful and safe during these extraordinary times,” the interfaith group said.

“In the spirit of ecumenicism, we join together in asking congregations and members across the state to take faithful action by refraining from in-person religious gatherings, including worship. We encourage and hope that congregations will worship and gather in community from afar continuing the use technology and other means. Decisions to return to in-person gatherings in our congregations should be based on science, the best practices recommended by public health officials, and in consolations with leaders of our faith communities.”

Iowa’s four Roman Catholic bishops also issued a statement on Tuesday saying they would not lift the ban on public Masses they imposed in March.

“The spread of the COVID-19 disease remains a real and present danger,” the bishops said.

The bishops explained they have been closely monitoring information about COVID-19 in Iowa and in the Midwest, and will change their policy regarding in-person services when they are sure it will be safe for congregants, the clergy and the wider public.

“Without an effective vaccine or widespread testing and contact data that justifies a change in course, we simply are not at a place where we can resume our previous prayer practices,” they said.

Dr. Eli Perencevich, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology in the UI Carver College of Medicine and one of the authors of the COVID-19 modeling report, also voiced opposition to the timing of Iowa’s partial reopening on Tuesday, calling the state’s decision a “tragic error.”

(Perencevich later said he wanted to emphasize his tweets represent his personal opinion and should not be construed as statements on behalf of the College of Public Health COVID-19 research group.)

Among the 508 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday were 11 residents of Johnson County and 19 residents of Linn County. IDPH also reported nine more deaths from the virus, bringing the total number of reported COVID-19 deaths in the state to 136. Two of the deceased in Tuesday’s report were from Linn County.

Newly reported deaths by county

• Black Hawk County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Linn County, 2 older adults (61-80 years)

• Muscatine County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Polk County, 3 elderly adults (81+), 1 older adult (61-80 years)

• Story County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

Outbreaks at seven more long-term care facilities were reported on Tuesday, including at outbreak at the Iowa Veteran Home in Marshalltown.

The first case of a resident of the Iowa Veterans Homes testing positive was reported by the Gazette on Saturday. Earlier in April the home disclosed three staff members had tested positive. Neither was enough for IDPH to declare an outbreak, because the department requires at least three residents to test positive before it is considered an outbreak.

As of Tuesday, there are 20 confirmed cases of the virus among the residents and staff of the Iowa Veterans Home, according to IDPH.

The newly reported outbreaks bring the number of long-term care facilities IDPH acknowledges as experiencing spread of COVID-19 to 23.

During her prepared remarks at the press conference on Tuesday, Reynolds focused on the reopening of restaurants to dine-in customers in the 77 counties she has selected, stressing what a welcome and positive change it would bring in those communities. The governor even had a cafe owner from the western Iowa town of Corning (population 1,447) join the press conference by Zoom to discuss his plans.

Asked by a reporter how the state would ensure reopened restaurant were complying with IDPH guidance on social distancing and enhanced cleaning, Reynolds said, “Well, first of all, I have confidence in Iowans to do the right thing.”

The governor then went on to repeat some of the restaurant guidelines that Reisetter had already discussed earlier in the press conference.

On Tuesday, Barbara Rodriguez, the Register reporter who forced the state to make the College of Public Health reports public, tweeted that another state agency was denying an Open Records request. That time, it was the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The department was refusing to release records related to the information on COVID-19 it is providing to Reynolds and other state agencies.

In its email to Rodriguez, the department cited an exemption in the Open Records Act that allows it to withhold records if providing that information would endanger life or property.

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