Gov. Reynolds sends mixed messages on face masks as Iowa surpasses 2,000 COVID deaths

Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses questions from the press on Nov. 17, 2020. — video still

Gov. Kim Reynolds began her news conference on Tuesday by repeating much of what she said during her televised speech on Monday night, when she introduced some new, limited COVID-19 restrictions.

“Over the last two weeks, the number of hospitalizations have climbed daily,” Reynolds said. “And at times the increases have been significant.”

There were 718 COVID-19 patients in Iowa hospitals on Nov. 1, the governor noted. On Tuesday morning, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported more than twice that number with 1,510 hospitalized COVID-19 patients That is an increase of 118 patients from the previous day’s record-setting total.

Although hospitalization numbers are available at the state and regional levels, IDPH will not provide information about hospitals at the city or county level, or allow county health agencies to do so, KCRG reported on Monday.

The department does collect information about hospital resources and capacities on a daily basis, but the state claims this information concerns “physical infrastructure, critical infrastructure, and emergency preparedness” and is therefore exempt from open records laws, KCRG said.

It wasn’t just hospitalization rates that were high on Tuesday. IDPH reported another 3,563 Iowans tested positive for COVID-19 during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. The new cases include 110 residents of Johnson County and 225 residents of Linn County.

Iowa also surpassed 2,000 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday. Between 10 a.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. on Tuesday, IDPH reported 33 deaths from the virus, increasing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 2,024.

It took 201 days from the confirmation of the first cases of COVID-19 in the state for the number of deaths from the virus to reach 1,000. It took 90 days to go from more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths to more than 2,000.

During her news conference, Reynolds pointed to recent announcements regarding vaccines that will likely become available under emergency-use authority from the FDA in the coming weeks, although experts warn the vaccines won’t become widely available for months.

The governor also devoted a section of the news conference to convalescent plasma therapy, an experimental treatment for COVID-19 that involves giving transfusions of blood plasma from recovered COVID patients that contains virus antibodies to patients with active cases.

LifeServe Blood Center Vice President for Operations Christine Hayes said “patient demand [for the treatment] is skyrocketing.” According to Hayes, in the past two weeks, more than 900 units of convalescent plasma had been used to treat COVID-19 patients in Iowa. That’s more than the amount used during the four months of the pandemic. Hospitals in Mason City, Sioux City and Waterloo are the three that have used the treatment most often, according to LifeServe’s data.

Hayes said that at current rates, LifeServe expects its supply of the plasma to run out by Dec. 1. Only the plasma of volunteers can be used in patient treatment, and the nonprofit LifeServe is the principle source of the plasma for Iowa hospitals.

Hayes encouraged anyone who has recovered from the virus and is capable of donating blood to do so by contacting LifeServe. Each donation can be used to create four units of convalescent plasma to treat patients.

As she typically does, Gov. Reynolds claimed on Tuesday the surge in COVID-19 cases in Iowa is just part of a national trend, and suggested it is largely beyond the power of the state government to mitigate. But the latest report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force documents just how much worse the situation is in Iowa compared to the rest of the county.

“The spread in Iowa is exponential and unyielding,” the task force said in the report dated Nov. 15. The report was delivered to the state on Sunday and released by IDPH on Tuesday.

Iowa had the third-highest rate of new cases of the virus in the country last week, according to the report. The state had 991 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents. That was more than triple the national average of 294 new cases per 100,000 residents.

For the first time, all 99 counties were listed in the task force’s red zone, meaning they all had more than 101 or more new cases per 100,000 residents last week.

The task force did note Reynolds had imposed a mask mandate on social gatherings of more than 25 people indoors or 100 people outdoors last week, calling it “a good start,” but added it needed “to be expanded to all public settings.”

“Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be expanded,” the report said.

The governor did expand the face mask mandate on Monday, although it still contains many exceptions.

The new face mask requirement doesn’t apply “if you’re running in and you’re not coming in contact — you can social distance, then you don’t need to wear one and again Iowans will be responsible,” as Reynolds explained at the news conference. It only applies if a person is in one of the public places not exempted from the order, and will be within six feet of another person for 15 minutes or longer.

A reporter asked Reynolds, “Where did you get that 15-minute number, since it’s not the CDC guidelines? And what is the message to Iowans to who are confused” about when to wear a mask?

“Well, if they’re confused, I’d say put the mask on,” the governor replied. She said she believes in the effectiveness of masks as part of “a layered mitigation effort.”

Reynolds did not explain what the basis is for her 15-minute threshold for mask-wearing.

Since the governor had repeatedly pointed to the virus spread in states with face mask mandates as a reason not have one in Iowa, Reynolds was asked about what scientific basis for a mask mandate she could show to people who share her former anti-mask stance.

“There’s science on both sides, and you know that,” the governor said, shrugging. “If you look you can find whatever you want to support wherever you’re at.”

There are no scientific studies showing masks don’t work. And being able to “find whatever you want to support wherever you’re at” is, of course, the opposite of a scientific approach.

After the news conference, the governor’s spokesperson said Reynolds misspoke and doesn’t believe there is “science on both sides.” What the governor meant to say was the different people have different opinions on the topic, the spokesman said.

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