Iowa’s total number of COVID-19 cases reached 10,111 on Tuesday, and the state saw its highest one-day death toll as the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 19 deaths from the virus. But at her press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Iowa is now in “the recovery phase of COVID-19.”
The governor made this remark while responding to a question about her decision-making process with regards to relaxing restrictions in certain counties. Some of the 77 counties where pandemic mitigation orders have been relaxed have higher COVID-19 case counts than counties where restrictions remain in full force.
For example, Crawford County in western Iowa has had restrictions relaxed, despite having 96 confirmed cases, while all restrictions are still enforced in eastern Iowa’s Bremer County, which has 55 cases of the virus. Both counties are adjacent to counties considered COVID-19 hotspots — Crawford borders Woodbury County and Bremer borders Black Hawk County.
Reynolds said she is looking at trends in virus activity rather than case totals, which she dismissed as “just a snapshot in time.” (In terms of trends, it’s worth noting 92 of Crawford’s cases have been reported in the last four weeks.)
The governor said improved testing capabilities — Test Iowa opened its third testing site on Monday, and is scheduled to open one in Cedar Rapids on Thursday — and case monitoring provides the data needed to safely reopen the state and manage any spike in the virus activity in reopened counties.
“But again, because of the data and the way that we’ve moved into kind of the recovery phase of addressing COVID-19 and the coronavirus is we can take a look from a county, from a community, right down to a zip code on where we’re seeing the virus activity and how we respond to that,” Reynolds said. “And that might not mean that we have to do anything different except to educate Iowans that ‘This is what we’re seeing in your community.’”
Reynolds said, as she frequently has since COVID-19 was first detected in the state almost two months ago, that more government action isn’t needed, because she believes Iowans are innately sensible and the state’s businesses are trustworthy.
“I believe and I trust Iowans to do the right thing,” she said. “And I trust our businesses to do the right thing.”
But news of workplace COVID-19 outbreaks raised the question of whether some of Iowa’s largest businesses have been doing the right thing.
IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter explained during Tuesday’s press conference that the department defines an “outbreak” at a business as either 10 percent absenteeism among workers, or having 10 percent of its workforce test positive for the virus or be identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive. Only workers “in a single location of an employment setting which constitutes a high-risk environment for the potential of COVID transmission, such as a congregate setting in which social distancing is impossible or impracticable” count towards meeting that 10 percent threshold.
According to Reisetter, five business sites in Iowa meet IDPH’s definition of an outbreak. Four of the sites are meat processing plants, and three of those are Tyson Food plants.
Tyson Foods has repeatedly refused to publicly disclose the number of COVID-19 cases at its plants, claiming that doing so would violate the privacy rights of its employees.
IDPH has recorded 221 cases of COVID-19 at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, which amounts to 26 percent of the workers tested there. At the Tyson plant in Waterloo, 17 percent of the workers tested positive for a total of 444 cases. The Tyson plant in Perry has more confirmed cases than both of the other plants combined — 730 workers, or 58 percent of the plants workers tested, were confirmed as having the virus.
Even though cases of COVID-19 have been reported at half of the state’s 18 meat processing plants, only one other plant met IDPH’s definition of an outbreak.
Fifty-nine percent of the workers tested at the Iowa Premium National Beef plant in Tama had COVID-19, for a total of 258 cases.
The only business on the list that’s not a meat processing plant is TPI Composites, which manufactures blades for wind turbines. Its factory in Newton has had 131 workers test positive, which is 13 percent of all the workers tested there.
Reisetter was asked why the department set the 10 percent threshold for identifying an outbreak at a business, since it means hundreds of workers at a large company would have to infected before the public was informed. She said the department was using the same threshold in COVID-19 cases it uses for reporting flu outbreaks at schools and businesses.
Epidemiologists have repeatedly warned against conflating COVID-19 with flu, because COVID-19 spreads more easily and is more lethal.
Interestingly, IDPH rejected applying its criteria for declaring a flu outbreak in long-term care facilities to COVID-19 cases. For the flu, an outbreak is defined as one resident testing positive and another resident on the same floor experiencing symptoms of a respiratory disease. For COVID-19, IDPH defines an outbreak as three or more residents testing positive for the virus. If IDPH used its flu definition in long-term care facilities, the number experiencing an outbreak would likely be much higher than the current 28 IDPH lists on its COVID-19 site.
On Tuesday, IDPH reported another 408 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including 13 residents of Johnson County and 10 residents of Linn County. Six residents of Linn County were also among 19 new deaths IDPH reported.
Newly reported deaths by county
• Allamakee County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)
• Black Hawk County, 1 middle-age adult (41-60 years), 1 older adult (61-80 years), 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Dallas County, 1 older adult (61-80 years), 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Jasper County, 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Linn County, 1 middle-age adult (41-60 years), 5 older adults (61-80 years)
• Polk County, 1 adult (18-40 years), 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Tama County, 3 elderly adults (81+)
• Woodbury County, 1 elderly adult (81+)
Those 19 deaths bring the total number of confirmed COVID-19 fatalities in Iowa to 207.
At the end of her press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Reynolds was asked about a report in Politico this morning that she will be meeting with President Trump at the White House this week. Reynolds confirmed the meeting.
“I’ll be going to give him an update on what we’re doing in Iowa, and really talk about how testing and case investigation, our assessment, really working with our processing plants and how we tried to be proactive in that respect, to give him an update on that,” she explained. “And to thank them for their assistance throughout the process.”
This the second time in two days Reynolds has been mentioned in Politico. On Monday, she was one of the governors featured in a story about COVID-19 and states reopening titled, “‘Viewers will get tired of another season’: Trump and governors shrug off White House guidance.”