Where Reynolds sees ‘some positive trends’ in Iowa’s COVID-19 data, the Black Hawk County sheriff sees ‘failures of corporate greed and governmental ignorance’

Gov. Kim Reynolds at her May 12 press conference. — video still

At her press conference on Monday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she would announce further relaxations of the state’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday. But the governor started her Tuesday press conference by saying that announcement would now be made on Wednesday.

“I’m still reviewing some information with the Department of Public Health and my team today, and will be announcing the new changes tomorrow,” Reynolds said. “I know that Iowans and businesses are eager to know what’s next, but as I said all along, these decisions must be made carefully and must be driven by data.”

The governor was asked if there was some particular data she expected to receive during the one-day delay to inform her decision. There isn’t.

Reynolds pointed out that most of the current restrictions don’t expire until Friday.

“So, we had some time, so I want to continue to look at the data and work with the Department of Public Health and our team,” she said.

The governor added she and her advisers are seeing “some positive trends,” such as the hospitalization rates of COVID-19 patients stabilizing and adequate supply of health care resources, “as we continue to reopen the state of Iowa.”

A confidential White House assessment published by NBC News on Monday night was less optimistic about Iowa. The report listed the 10 counties in the U.S. where cases of COVID-19 had grown fastest in the week before May 7. Polk County was number eight on the list.

Reynolds said on Monday that as cases declined in eastern Iowa counties like Johnson and Linn, virus activity is increasing in central and western Iowa. At her Tuesday press conference, the governor said Iowa Department of Public Health now had “pretty significant data from the eastern side of the state as we start to see moving west, so that’ll be very helpful and informative as we target our response and do our testing.”

The governor said it was up to individual businesses to make their own decisions about reopening — “lifting restrictions is not a mandate to reopen” — and people need to make their own choices about what activities are safe to resume.

Reynolds also defended her decision to reopen the state as necessary.

“So, getting life and businesses back to normal is important for many reasons, not at [sic] least of which is assuring the well-being of Iowans,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the unintended consequences that our response to COVID-19 has had. Iowans have filed more than 206,000 unemployment claims and more than 147,000 federal pandemic unemployment claims.”

The governor also referred to a report showing farm bankruptcies have increased nationwide over the past year. The report, however, is based on data for a 12-month period ending in March, so it’s unlikely many of those bankruptcies were due to COVID-19.

“The steps that we’ve taken to protect the health of our state and Iowans has had a real impact on Iowans and families,” Reynolds said to explain why relaxing restriction remains necessary.

Black Hawk is one of the counties that has been hit hardest by COVID-19. An outbreak at the Tyson meat processing plant in Waterloo has driven the spread of the virus in the county. As of Tuesday, IDPH was reporting 1,521 residents have tested positive and 28 have died from the virus.

Tyson’s meat processing plant in Waterloo, 501 N Elk Run Rd, on May 10, 2020. — Sophie McClatchey/Little Village

Speaking at a Black Hawk County Public Health press conference on Monday afternoon, Sheriff Tony Thompson struck a very different note than Gov. Reynolds does at her press conferences. He noted that when he set up the county’s emergency operations center on March 17, only 35 residents had tested positive and no one had died yet.

“We have outbreaks in three long-term care facilities, and we have a governor who continues to open up the state,” Thompson said. “Believe me, I get it. I understand the temptation, and I respect the need to give our economy a boost. Perhaps I’m too close to these positive cases, and perhaps I’m too close to those deaths.”

Thompson said he’d spent the last week trying to help nursing homes with their staff problems, as more and more workers at those homes went out sick, and more of the homes’ residents became infected with COVID-19.

The sheriff said the county’s plans to limit the spread of the virus “went all to hell” when Tyson refused to cooperate. For two weeks in March, county officials called on the company to temporarily close the plant to help stop the spread of the virus among its workers. They also asked Gov. Reynolds to take action when the company wouldn’t.

Reynolds never took any actions to close the plant, assuring Iowans Tyson was doing a good job protecting its workers. On April 22, Tyson finally agreed to temporarily close the plant, citing “worker absenteeism” as one of its main reasons for doing so.

The spread of the virus caused by keeping the plant open had gone through the community and is now causing the deaths among nursing home residents, according to Thompson. He said there had been nine such deaths in the previous five days.

“It breaks my heart and it infuriates me to know that as we fall back to deal with the fallout of the failures of corporate greed and governmental ignorance, that more and more citizens fall victim to this virus as a result,” Thompson said.

The question of outbreaks in long-term care facilities was raised at the governor’s press conference on Tuesday. Reynolds was asked if she was concerned that further relaxing restrictions might lead to more long-term care facility workers becoming infected and accidentally spread the virus to the residents they care for.

The governor responded by saying many precautions against COVID-19 were already in place in the state’s long-term care facilities.

“Our long-term care facilities have basically been locked down since the middle of March, since we first found out about the virus,” she said.

Long-term care facilities were among the first places Reynolds regulated to limit the spread of the virus. When she first ordered those restrictions, IDPH was reporting no outbreaks at long-term care facilities in the state. Currently, the department is reporting 32 such outbreaks. Nineteen of the outbreaks have been reported since the governor signed her first proclamation relaxing restrictions in the state on April 24.

On Tuesday, IDPH reported another 539 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including four residents of Johnson County and eight residents of Linn County, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the state to 12,912.

IDPH also reported another 18 deaths due to the virus. According to the department, the total number of Iowans who have died from COVID-19 now stands at 289.

More than 60 percent of the new cases reported on Tuesday weren’t actually new. The results included 319 Iowa residents who work at a meat processing plant in Nebraska and were tested in that state. Reynolds said she believes the workers were informed of their results in a timely manner, but it wasn’t until yesterday that Nebraska health officials shared the results of the tests with IDPH. Since the department was unaware of the test results, no contact tracing in those cases has been conducted during the last two weeks.

Neither Reynolds nor IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter could explain why Nebraska waited so long before sharing the test results.

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