Reynolds takes ‘first step’ to reopening Iowa, as the state sets new one-day records for COVID-19 cases, deaths

Gov. Kim Reynolds answers questions during the Friday, April 24 press conference on COVID-19. — video still

On the same day the Iowa Department of Public Health reported one-day records for both new COVID-19 cases and deaths caused by the virus, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation she called the “first step” in “reopening Iowa.”

Relaxing restrictions

“Today I’m announcing that, effective Monday, Iowa health systems, health care providers may begin the process of resuming elective surgeries and procedures through a phased-in approach,” Reynolds said at her press conference on Friday.

According to the proclamation, a health care provider or facility must have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) “without relying on state or local government PPE stockpiles.” Providers must also have a plan for testing patients with COVID-19 symptoms and enough staff to engage in any mitigation efforts necessary.

Hospitals must continue to admit and treat COVID-19 patients and reserve 30 percent of both ICU and regular medical beds for those patients.

On Friday afternoon, University of Iowa Health Care announced its hospitals and clinics would resume elective procedures next week.

The new proclamation also “permits farmers markets to begin limited operations with appropriate public health precautions,” Reynolds said.

The proclamation allows the markets to sell “farm products or food. Vendors selling other goods or services are not permitted.” Entertainment and common seating are also prohibited.

Reopened farmers markets must also “implement reasonable measures under the circumstances of each market to ensure social distancing of vendors and customers, increased hygiene practices,” as well as other unspecified “public health measures.”

On Monday, Iowa City announced it was starting an online version of its farmers market with drive-through pick-up until it is safe to reopen a market with in-person shopping. Online orders for the Iowa City Farmers Market will be made through the Field to Family website, and the first drive-through pick-up session will be May 9. Current plans call for in-person shopping to resume on July 4.

Reynolds was asked at her press conference if she was concerned about people crowding into newly reopened farmers markets. She’s not.

“I believe in Iowans and their ability to be responsible, and so I don’t anticipate any problems,” Reynolds said.

Record numbers

On Friday, IDPH reported another 521 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19, including 30 residents of Linn County and 19 residents of Johnson County. The newly reported cases bring the state’s total to 4,445.

IDPH also reported 11 Iowans had died from the virus, including four residents of Linn County.

Newly reported deaths by county

• Bremer County, 1 elderly adults (81+)

• Black Hawk County, 1 middle-age adult (41-60 years), 2 older adults (61-80 years)

• Linn County, 2 older adults (61-80 years), 2 elderly adults (81+)

• Polk County, 2 elderly adults (81+)

• Scott County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)

The deaths reported on Friday bring the total number of Iowans who have died from the virus to 107.

An outbreak of COVID-19 at Mitchell Village Care Center, a nursing home in Polk County, was reported on Friday. There are now outbreaks at 13 long-term care facilities in Iowa, according to IDPH. The department defines an outbreak at a long-term care facility to be three or more residents testing positive for the virus.

On Thursday, TPI Composites, which manufactures blades for wind turbines, announced it was temporarily closing its Jasper County plant for extensive cleaning after 28 of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. That would not qualify as an outbreak, according to IDPH. For a business to be experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19, at least 10 percent of its employees must test positive for the virus, according to IDPH’s definition. TPI employs more than 1,000 people at its plant.

Reynolds said many of the new cases reported in recent days were discovered by increased testing focused on meat processing plants and long-term care facilities where transmission of the virus has been surging. The governor said she and her advisers expect the number of reported cases to continue to grow a rate similar to this week’s cases as testing becomes more widespread in Iowa.

Test Iowa and hydroxychloroquine

Reynolds is relying on the new Test Iowa program to expand testing in the state. The program was launched on Tuesday, after the governor awarded a no-bid $26 million contract to a Utah-based tech company, Nomi Medical, to provide test kits and a health assessment website for the program and to administer the data generated by the program. Nomi Medical has a similar contract with Utah for Test Utah, which started at the beginning of the month.

Reynolds learned about Test Utah during a phone conversation with actor Ashton Kutcher. According to the governor, Kutcher told her Test Utah “looked very promising,” and he could connect her with of the tech company executives involved in the program, because one was a friend of his.

On Thursday night, Kutcher’s publicist provided a statement to the Associated Press explaining that Kutcher is “good friends” with Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics, one of Nomi Medical’s subcontractors on Test Utah and now Test Iowa.

According to Kutcher’s publicist, the actor has no investment in any of the companies involved in either Test Utah or Test Iowa, but is still enthusiastic about the testing programs.

A story in the Salt Lake Tribune on Friday raised questions about a possible conflict of interest in Test Utah. The paper reported Nomi Health CEO Mark Newman also serves on the board of directors of Meds in Motion, a company that has been awarded an $800,000 contract to provide the state of Utah with 20,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine, a drug President Trump has repeatedly promoted as a possible treatment for COVID-19.

(There are no credible scientific studies demonstrating hydroxychloroquine, which is used to treat malaria and lupus, is effective against COVID-19. The drug also has dangerous side effects, and can cause heart problems and/or blindness in some patients.)

As part of the health assessment, Test Utah and Test Iowa ask if an individual is allergic to hydroxychloroquine.

“Newman on Thursday argued the dual roles — leading a company that is identifying potential patients and helping to steer Meds in Motion, a supplier of the debated treatment — don’t pose a conflict of interest,” the Tribune reported. “Even if the drug proves effective against COVID-19 and the statewide data-collection websites he’s running facilitate its use, he said, patients won’t necessarily buy their doses from Meds in Motion.”

Reynolds was asked at her press conference on Wednesday if the question about hydroxychloroquine on the Test Iowa assessment meant the state was going to start using the drug.

“No, not right now,” the governor replied.

Anticipating the first peak

At the press conference on Friday, Reynolds was asked if the rapid increase in the reported number of COVID-19 has changed her projection that the virus will peak in the state during the next six days.

Reynolds turned the question over to IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

On March 29, Reisetter said, “We’re thinking that we might see a peak — a first peak — in the next two to three weeks. That’s the best information that we have right now.”

As mid-April drew closer, Reynolds and Reisetter began talking about the peak occurring before the end of the month.

On Friday, Reisetter said, “We fully anticipate that we’re going to see a peak here in the next two to three weeks.”

During her prepared remarks on Friday, the governor asked nurses to sign-up with I-SERV (Iowa Statewide Emergency Register for Volunteers), IDPH’s online registry for people who want to volunteer during a “a large scale disaster or public health emergency.”

“As health care workers become sick, nurses are in even higher demand, especially in our long-term care facilities,” Reynolds said.

It was after the governor asked for volunteers to help address the need for nurses caused by the spread of COVID-19 that she first mentioned the proclamation easing restrictions on elective surgeries and farmers markets.

“This is our first step of many to reopening Iowa, and getting life and business back to normal, as soon as possible,” the governor said about the proclamation. “On Monday, I will be making an additional announcement regarding our first phase of reopening Iowa.”

Editor’s note: Normally, Little Village includes a breakdown of newly reported cases by county in its stories on the daily total number of cases in Iowa, but IDPH had not updated its website with that information before this story was published.