“I want to assure Iowans that I’m healthy and feeling good, and I’m fully focused on leading Iowa’s response to the pandemic on our economic recovery efforts,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said at her press conference on Monday.
That assurance came after it was reported Reynolds’ was in contact with an aide to Vice President Pence who later tested positive for COVID-19 during the governor’s visit to the White House last week.
Reynolds stressed more than once that she had not been in “direct contact” with Katie Miller, Pence’s press secretary and one of his closest aides, although Miller had been physically present during Reynolds’ meeting with the president and vice president.
Of course, transmission of COVID-19 doesn’t require direct contract. It’s spread by droplets produced when people cough, sneeze, speak or just exhale. It is much more transmissible than flu or other similar respiratory viruses.
Reynolds’ visit to the White House occurred two days before Miller tested positive (and one day before one of President Trump’s personal valets was confirmed as having COVID-19), but the governor also spent time with the vice president on Friday, during his brief visit to Iowa. Sen. Grassley and Sen. Ernst traveled from Washington D.C. to Des Moines with Pence aboard Air Force Two.
The two senators and the governor accompanied the vice president to a meeting with the religious leaders at a church in Urbandale and discussion of the food supply chain with corporate CEOs at Hy-Vee’s headquarters in West Des Moines.
None of the group wore face masks on Friday, even though all were aware that Pence’s press secretary has tested positive. Miller’s test had caused Pence’s flight to Iowa to be delayed for an hour.
One of the religious leaders at the meeting in Urbandale, Rabbi David Kaufman, wore a face mask. At the Hy-Vee meeting, five of the business leaders who participated in the discussion were wearing masks before the Pence, Reynolds, Grassley and Ernst arrived. Those leaders — Ron Cameron of Mountaire Farms, Ken Sullivan of Smithfield Foods, Rodney McMullen of Kroger, Noel White of Tyson Foods and Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation — were asked to remove their masks before the politicians arrived. They all did so.
The Intercept posted a clip from the live-feed of the Hy-Vee meeting that showed the moment when the business leaders were asked to take off their masks.
Responding to a reporter’s question at Monday’s press conference, Reynolds said she had a face mask with her on Friday, but didn’t feel the need to use it because everyone was practicing social distancing throughout the day.
Bloomberg News reported on Sunday that Pence had taken a first step in self-isolating following Miller testing positive by skipping a Saturday meeting with President Trump and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After Bloomberg’s story appeared, the vice president’s office put out a statement saying he would be working as usual at the White House on Monday.
Spokespeople for Grassley and Ernst put out statements on Sunday night saying that neither had plans to self-isolate. Reynolds office did not respond to questions about the governor’s plans. But at her press conference, Reynolds said she would “follow a modified quarantine plan, similar to what Dr. Fauci and other White House administration members have announced that they are doing.”
The governor said she was doing this “out of an abundance of caution.”
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, have both gone into full self-isolation for two weeks after contact with an infected person at the White House. Iowa Department of Public Health Medical Director Caitlin Pedati, who accompanied Reynolds to the White House last week, is also self-isolating, according to Bloomberg.
Dr. Fauci has said he will be working from home for 14 days. If he does need to go into his office at the National Institutes of Health, he will go at a time when no one else is present in the office, and wear a face mask the entire time. He will also be tested every day.
Gov. Reynolds has a slightly looser interpretation of what a modified quarantine is.
“As is part of normal daily routine here at SEOC [the State Emergency Operations Center], my temperature will be taken before entering the building,” Reynolds said. “I’ll be tested daily. I was tested this morning and it was negative. And while here, I’ll practice social distancing and wear a mask when interacting with others, which will be minimal interaction.”
Reynolds is being tested with ID Now, the quick COVID-19 test created by Abbot Laboratories. The test has been heavily promoted by President Trump because of its speed and convenience, but a study done by the Cleveland Clinic found ID Now produced false negatives 14.8 percent of the time. According the director of COVID-19 testing for the clinic, any testing system that produces false results in more than 5 percent of its samples cannot be considered reliable.
The governor said that if she tests positive or begins to experience symptoms, she will stay home.
“I spoke with my team over the weekend and most will be working from home during this time, especially if they or a family member have health conditions that puts them at a higher risk,” Reynolds said Monday.
Although Reynolds didn’t wear a face mask at the Monday press conference, some changes were made. No reporters were allowed in the room at SEOC — all questions were asked over the phone. Also, Tailyn Kaster, the governor’s American Sign Language interpreter, was in a different room.
During her prepared remarks, Reynolds focused on the expanded testing in Iowa that she says provides data to allow her to safely relax restrictions in the state.
The governor pointed to data from Johnson and Linn counties, the first counties to report major COVID-19 infections, that showed the rate of the virus’s spread had decreased significantly.
“Over the last two weeks we’ve seen both counties stabilize and gradually trend downward, which is a good sign the virus activity is decreasing and becoming more manageable,” Reynolds said.
It’s not clear how much testing programs have contributed to the decline. Both Johnson and Linn were among the 22 counties where all restrictions remained in full effect until Friday. Local officials in both counties were also very active in providing information about the virus, as well as encouraging residents to stay home and practice social distancing if they had to go out.
The governor noted, however, that improvements in eastern Iowa were not reflected in the rest of the state.
“Iowa’s virus activity is now increasing in central and western communities.” Reynolds said. Most of the counties in central and western Iowa had restrictions relaxed on May 1.
Reynolds said her administration would use testing to monitor the increase in virus activity and implement mitigation strategies as necessary. The governor did not say what any of those strategies involved, but did note she would relax restrictions further on Tuesday.
On Monday, IDPH reported another 414 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including four residents of Johnson County and 14 residents of Linn County. The new cases bring the state’s total to 12,373 cases. The department also reported another six deaths from the virus. A total of 271 Iowans have died from COVID-19, according to IDPH.
On Friday, IDPH was reporting 28 long-term care facilities had outbreaks of COVID-19. That number increased to 32 on Monday. Over the weekend, the Iowa Department of Corrections reported another prison had its first case of the virus, when a staff member at the Newton Correctional Facility tested positive.
Cases of COVID-19 have now been reported at four of Iowa’s nine state prisons. An inmate and a staff members at the Clarinda Correctional Facility, two staff members at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women and 20 inmates, as well as nine staff members, at Oakdale Prison in Coralville had previously tested positive.
Questions about Iowa’s testing program came up at the governor’s press conference on Monday. Reynolds told Vice President Pence at the Hy-Vee meeting that the state now has the capacity to conduct and process 5,000 tests a day. But according to information from IDPH, the state has never come to close to that number of daily tests.
Reynolds was asked about this discrepancy between the capacity she claims exists and the number of tests actually being done.
“Well, we’ve done really good the last couple of weeks,” the governor said. According to test data published by IDPH, between May 4 and 10, the state averaged less than 2,700 a day.
Reynolds said those numbers would increase after the State Hygienic Laboratory finished its assessment of the reliability of the test kits furnished by Nomi Health, the Utah-based tech company awarded a $26 million no-bid contract by Gov. Reynolds to administer Test Iowa three weeks ago.
“We’re really close to getting Test Iowa validated, so that will be a significant piece in allowing us to continue to ramp up our numbers,” Reynolds said.