Reynolds addresses racial discrepancies in COVID-19 cases, plans to increase testing

New information provided on the state’s revamped COVID-19 website, launched on Tuesday, revealed that black and Latino Iowans are testing positive for the virus at disproportionate rates. At her press conference on Wednesday, Gov. Reynolds was asked, “What are you doing to address that?”

“We’re still looking at the trends,” Reynolds replied. She added, “I think it’s consistent, maybe not at the higher rate, with what we’re seeing in some of the states across the country.”

Reynolds then turned the question over to Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

“I think that we are still just in the process of kind of analyzing the data,” Reisetter said. “I think what we’re seeing in Iowa is consistent with what we have seen across the country in terms of increased rates. And I think that some of the reasons and the explanations for some of those increased rates is that we know that there’s a higher incidence of underlying health conditions that make these particular populations more susceptible to serious COVID complications.”

“We also know that we have larger numbers of these populations that work in businesses that have not been ordered to close at this time, such as food manufacturing businesses,” she continued. “And then we also know that there’s a higher incidence of more density in housing among these populations that does make isolation during illness more difficult and increases the risk of the spread within a household, where we know the virus does tend to spread quickly and easily.”

Neither Reisetter or the governor mentioned some of the factors experts in other states have said could account for higher rates of COVID-19 in people of color. Among other factors, members of minority communities have less access to regular heath care, typically experience higher degrees of stress in everyday life (which can depress the immune system) and often live in areas where healthy food options are in short supply.

Unlike Reynolds, Reisetter did discuss what the state is doing to address the disparate results in the rate of infection. She said IDPH will publish more information “in alternative languages” and is “trying to reach out specifically to some of these businesses where these individuals may work.”

Iowa COVID-19 cases by race, April 15, 2020.

According to information published by IDPH on Wednesday, black Iowans, who make up 4 percent of the state’s population, account for 9.2 percent of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Iowa. That’s a slight increase from Tuesday, when the statistic was 8.7 percent.

There was a similar increase for Hispanic and Latino Iowans in IDPH’s statistics on Wednesday. Hispanics and Latinos are approximately 6 percent of the state’s population, but make up 17.3 percent of those testing positive. On Tuesday, that number was 16.4 percent.

Iowa cases of COVID-19 by ethnicity, April 15, 2020.

Reisetter said during the press conference that the state’s statistics may change due to increased testing — including “surveillance testing,” where asymptomatic individuals connected to an outbreak are tested.

Reynolds started her press conference by talking about one of the expanded testing efforts. She said 900 additional tests were sent to Louisa County, where the Tyson pork processing plant has had an outbreak. As of Tuesday, there were 186 confirmed cases of COVID-19 directly related to the outbreak. (Wednesday evening, it was reported that two Tyson employees had died, presumably from COVID-19.)

The governor was asked if the state needed to take extra actions to guarantee the health of workers at Iowa’s 18 meat processing plants after the outbreak at Tyson and another at National Beef in Tama County.

Reynolds said last week IDPH sent out guidelines to plants, based on the guidelines the department provides to schools regarding flu outbreaks.


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“If you see over 10 percent of your population that’s ill, then they are to contact the Department of Public Health,” the governor explained.

Guidelines, of course, are voluntary. Reynolds reiterated her statement from Tuesday that no new mandatory steps are needed, because she believes the corporations that own the meat processing plants will behave responsibly.

“I’ve talked to several of them,” Reynolds said. “I’ll be calling the balance of them today, just to get an assessment on what they’re seeing, where they’re at with some of the protective and preventive measures that they’re putting in place and talk about how we can continue to always be on the front-end of that, in identifying positive cases before it starts to become significant.”

Reynolds has predicted Iowa’s peak in COVID-19 cases will occur by the end of April. In today’s press conference, she was asked what specific information she and her advisers were basing their estimate on, since IDPH didn’t sign a contract with the University of Iowa College of Public Health to produce predictive models for the spread of the virus in the state. (As of Monday, IDPH still had not provided the College of Public Health with the information needed to create those models.)

The governor turned the question over to Reisetter.

“What we’re basing our estimates on, in terms of when we’re going to see a peak in Iowa, is really based on the experience in other states,” Reisetter said.

Because some other states — Reisetter did not specify which states — experienced peaks four to six weeks from “the time they really started having aggressive [mitigation] efforts,” IDPH estimates Iowa will have the same experience.

On Wednesday, IDPH reported another 96 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19, including 10 residents of Johnson County and 11 residents of Linn County. The new cases brings the state’s total of confirmed cases to 1,995.

Little Village used to publish the daily breakdown of new cases by county, but neither IDPH or the governor’s office will be publishing that list anymore. The governor’s office will continue to send out press releases regarding COVID-19. On Wednesday, a resident of Johnson County, between the ages of 61 and 80, was one of those fatalities. It is the third death from COVID-19 among the county’s residents.

The deaths of three other Iowans were also reported on Wednesday.

• Allamakee County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)

• Clayton County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Polk County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

The newly reported deaths brings Iowa’s COVID-19 fatalities to 53.

Another outbreak in a long-term-care facility — Wilton Retirement Community in Muscatine County — was reported on Wednesday, bringing the total number of such outbreaks to seven. IDPH defines as an outbreak as three or more residents testing positive for COVID-19.

During her press conference, Gov. Reynolds said the first committee meeting about “reopening” Iowa would be held this week. The governor was asked how extensive testing would have to be throughout the state, before it could be determined it was safe to reopen businesses and schools.

Reynolds did provide an answer, but said one in 160 Iowans had already been tested. (According to the COVID-19 information site, as of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 19,869 people, or approximately 0.6 percent of the state’s population had been tested.)

“We can do more [testing], we should do more, but that’s actually, I think, pretty good,” Reynolds said.

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