“I believe the government’s role in a public health crisis is to provide the public reliable information, so that they can make and form their own informed decisions,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said during a news conference on Thursday. “I also believe that this approach is more effective than mandates that attempt to dictate other people’s behavior.”
That news conference finished rather abruptly. The governor ended it rather than let Kelly Garcia, the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, answer a reporter’s question about whether she would recommend students wear face masks in schools to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
Garcia had been featured earlier in the news conference, announcing that IDPH will change its COVID-19 information site. The site stopped providing daily updates of COVID-19 statistics in early July, but the surge in new cases and hospitalizations caused by the Delta variant have led to the department making another change.
“We’re reformatting our COVID website to highlight the things we think make the most sense to focus on,” Garcia said.
Some information will be updated three times a week, but Garcia said “deeper-level information” will still be updated only once a week. The interim director did not specify which information is considered deeper-level, but did say one new piece of information the site will provide is vaccination status of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Reynolds said that 79 percent of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Iowa were unvaccinated, and for patients in ICUs that figure was 90 percent.
In its update of data late Wednesday night, IDPH reported 524 Iowans were hospitalized with COVID-19, with 149 of them in ICUs.
“Since mid-July we’ve seen a steady but manageable increase in COVID cases,” Reynolds said. “And as expected, a corresponding increase in hospitalizations.”
In its weekly update on July 14, IDPH reported 920 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, an average of 131 new case per day for that seven-day reporting period. In the update this week, the department reported 8,308 newly confirmed cases, for an average of 1,187 new cases per day.
IDPH reported 80 Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 on July 14. This week, it reported 524 patients, an increase of 555 percent.
The governor focused on the number of hospitalized patients, but instead of comparing the current total to the number in mid-July, Reynolds chose to compare it to the highest number of hospitalizations, which occurred during the fall spike in cases last year, months before vaccines were available.
Compared to last year’s peak of 1,527 hospitalized patients, the current total of 524 was more manageable, the governor said, although she also said, “Resources in some Iowa hospitals are being stretched — we get a daily report on that.”
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Reynolds said at the beginning of her prepared remarks that “with vaccines widely available, the rise we’re experiencing isn’t cause for panic.” Near the end of her prepared remarks, she said, “I’ve been clear from the beginning that vaccination is easily the best tool that we have to counter the virus.”
The governor has also stoked fears of nonexistent “vaccine passports” for political reasons, prevented schools and colleges from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations — though schools and colleges are still free to mandate all the other vaccinations they required before the pandemic — and prohibited local governments from creating vaccine mandates. Local governments and schools are forbidden from having people disclose their vaccination status, and if a private business requires information on the vaccination status of a member of the public entering its premises, that business may face penalties under a law Reynolds signed this spring.
During the question period of the news conference, the governor was asked what she would do to change the minds of those who haven’t heeded her advice — or anyone else’s — to get vaccinated.
“I’m going to put my confidence in them,” Reynolds said. “They’re going to make the decision. First of all, we don’t know all of their health decisions. You don’t know my health, I don’t know yours. There may be really justified reasons that they don’t do that. And so that’s why I don’t believe mandates, you know, work.”
Of course, every vaccine mandate has exceptions built into it, especially regarding health.
The governors added that those who choose not to be vaccinated will “just have to adjust accordingly.” She did not elaborate on what that meant.
The questions then turned to the use of face masks in schools. HF 847, which Reynolds signed into law in May, contained a ban on schools and school districts requiring the use of face masks. The bill directly contradicts the guidance of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which calls for everyone over the age of 2 in schools to be masked in order to protect children under 12 and others who cannot be vaccinated. HF 847 passed with only Republican votes on the final day of this year’s legislative session.
The governor, Garcia and the director of the Iowa Department of Education are being sued in state court by a mother of two school children under the age of 12, who is seeking to overturn the school mask mandate ban. The state is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which is attempting to determine if the ban violates the right of students with disabilities to receive an education in a safe environment.
Reynolds was asked what she would say to parents of school children too young to be vaccinated or who have chronic health conditions and want their children to be in schools where everyone is masked to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Since the issue of mask use in schools is so important, it is worth quoting the governor’s full response.
So, we have an online option. The other thing that I would say to them is to continue to talk to their doctors. I would say that a majority of the parents I — several of the parents that I’ve talked to, that had kids with underlying conditions, or had an IEP, or was [sic] concerned about their capability of learning had more issues with the mask than they actually did without the mask.
So, it’s their right. We have to remember it’s their right to wear a mask, they can make sure that they’re in an N95, they can use a face shield. There’s various things that we can do to help mitigate their chance of being exposed. But again, it’s a law in Iowa. I believe parents can visit with their doctors, and then they will make an informed decision on what’s the best thing for their child. And that’s where I believe that it needs to stay.
Reynolds has repeatedly stressed the importance of in-person instruction, so she was asked why she was recommending parents who are concerned about schools not being able to mandate masks opt for online instruction instead.
Again, the governor’s full response:
But there’s also parents who have adverse reactions, their kids have had severe reverse reactions to the mask. So, you have to balance both of that. Again, that’s why you — it’s the law. We’ll start there. Parents will — parents understand and know the health of their children. They’ll know what they need to do. They’re the best person and individual [sic] to decide that course of action for their children. And that applies on both, in both cases.
So if you’re a parent where potentially that mask adversely affects your child or their capability to be able to learn, there’s data on both sides that support masks and the effects — the negative effects of masks. And so they’re going to have to take that information, just like vaccines, and make an informed decision as to what is best for their child.
A reporter then asked Garcia, “Would you recommend students go to school with masks on?”
Before Garcia could answer, the governor said, “It doesn’t really matter because it’s a law at this point. It is a law.”
The reporter began to reply, “The mandate is a law, but a recommendation–” before Reynolds cut him off.
“It is a law that elected officials, that are elected by Iowans and constituents across this state, listened to the people that they represent, passed a bill, sent it to my desk and was signed into law,” she said.
After saying that, the governor immediately ended the news conference and exited the room.
After the news conference, Garcia did speak to reporters, but did not say if she would follow CDC guidance and recommend the use of masks in schools.
“As the governor answered, there is a law on the books in Iowa, but that doesn’t mean a parent can’t make their own decision,” Garcia told reporters. “As a parent, I send my children to school in masks every day and I’ve had that conversation with our healthcare provider and our teachers.”
“I don’t want my kids to be sick and I can’t afford for them to bring that home with a breakthrough.”
Garcia, who is the director of Iowa Department of Human Services, has served as interim director of IDPH for over a year. Despite the ongoing pandemic, IDPH has not had a full-time director since July 2020.