Gov. Reynolds typically begins her press conferences by announcing the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the state and the number of Iowans who have died from the virus. But on Thursday, she skipped those numbers and started things off by discussing her trip to see President Trump on Wednesday.
“Yesterday I was at the White House at the invitation of the president, to update him, the vice president, as well as others from the administration and the Coronavirus Task Force, about Iowa’s approach to COVID-19,” Reynolds said. “Especially as it related to our aggressive testing strategy, robust case investigation, all to contain and manage virus activity here in Iowa.”
But a story published by NPR on Thursday indicates that Iowa’s testing strategy has been less than impressive.
NPR compared the number of tests per day needed to properly monitor spread of COVID-19, according a new report from the Harvard Institute of Global Health, to the average number of daily tests each state reported between April 30 and May 6.
According to NPR, only nine states — Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming — were testing at adequate levels.
Last week, NPR also published an analysis of the number of contact tracers each state health department has. The National Association of County and City Health Officials has issued guidelines that call for state public health agencies to have a minimum of 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents until the pandemic subsides. Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health have announced plans to add 200 people to IDPH’s pre-pandemic contact tracing team; that number includes state employees who will be transferred from their normal jobs to this work and assigning members of the National Guard to the task. But even after those 200 are added, IDPH will still have only 7.5 contact tracers per 100,000 residents.
Reynolds was asked at the press conference about how Iowa’s numbers on testing and contact tracing compared to other states, and whether she thought the state’s current efforts were enough. The governor shrugged off the comparisons, pointing out she had been told at the White House that the state was doing an excellent job of handling COVID-19 and that other states should follow Iowa’s example.
“Iowans can be proud of what we’re doing,” Reynolds said. “You should be proud of what we’re doing. We are leading. And we’re leading by example, and we’re going to continue lead.”
On Thursday, IDPH reported another 655 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including 13 residents of Johnson County and 35 residents of Linn County. The new cases bring the state’s total to 11,059.
IDPH also reported 12 more Iowans have died from the virus, bring the total number of such deaths to 231. The department has redesigned its COVID-19 website, and is no longer publishing a list of deaths by county.
Along with the new design of the website, IDPH also has a new reporting period for confirmed cases and deaths. Previously, the numbers reported to the public on a Thursday would have been those reported to IDPH between 10 a.m. on Tuesday and 10 a.m. on Wednesday. The new reporting period runs from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. the previous day.
The numbers IDPH reported on Thursday included cases reported from 10 a.m. on Tuesday though 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday.
“Information will now be timelier,” Reynolds said, highlighting the changes to the website. She described the fact that, two months after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state, IDPH is now reporting cases without 24-hour delays as a major accomplishment.
The governor regularly presents relatively basic accomplishments related to tracking or mitigating the virus as impressive or praiseworthy.
Discussing the restrictions now being relaxed throughout the state, Reynolds said on Thursday they were needed when COVID-19 first reached Iowa on March 8, because there are “so many unknowns.”
Those unknowns included questions about the nature of the virus — some of which are still unanswered — but they also included such fundamental information as the number of ICU beds available in Iowa, and whether hospitals had enough trained personnel to staff those beds. On March 24, IDPH Sarah Reisetter said, “We are actively in the process of understanding what the [ICU] bed availability is in the state.”
It wasn’t until March 31 that Gov. Reynolds could tell the public, “We have about 600 ICU beds. And then there are some that are not adult beds that we could potentially utilize as well.”
Even assuming IDPH had a good reason not to keep track of such information before COVID-19 reached the United States, the country’s first confirmed case of the virus was reported on Jan. 20. It would be another six weeks before it reached Iowa.
While talking about her trip to the White House at the beginning of Thursday’s press conference, Reynolds singled out IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati for special praise. Pedati accompanied the governor to her meetings at the White House.
“She did such a good job in answering the president’s questions that during the press conference, he invited her to be a part of the Coronavirus Task Force,” Reynolds said.
“I’m stealing her,” Trump said of Pedati, during the photo op following his meeting with Reynolds on Wednesday. After some good-natured back-and-forth with Reynolds, he said, “I’m not going to steal her.”
“But I think you should be on the task force,” Trump said to Pedati. “Would you like to do that?”
“Mr. President, I’d be happy to serve however you would like,” Pedati replied.
An unnamed White House official later told Bloomberg News that Trump’s statement was not a formal invitation to join the task force, but indicated the task force would consult with Pedati in the future. According to the governor, it was a formal invitation and Pedati will be joining the task force.
“One of the reasons I think that this is really exciting is because there is no representation from a state-level on the Coronavirus Task Force,” Reynolds said. “So, I think that will allow, kind of, a state’s perspective to be heard as we work through the coronavirus pandemic.”