Reynolds: ‘We never guaranteed that no one would get COVID-19’

Gov. Reynolds takes questions during her May 15 press conference. — video still

As more COVID-19 restrictions were lifted across the state on Friday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 18 Iowans have died from the virus. Over the last seven days, there have been a total of 93 COVID-19 deaths. That’s the highest numbers of deaths from the virus during any such period.

Deaths, of course, are a lagging indicator of the virus’ progress, and while Gov. Kim Reynolds acknowledged the 18 newly reported deaths at her press conference on Friday, she cited more timely statistics to support her decision to roll back COVID-19 restrictions.

“Over the week, we’ve have seen our positive case count stabilize,” Reynolds said. “Today we are reporting that we have 374 new positive cases, and we have 3,888 negative cases for a daily positivity of 8.3 percent.”

The average positivity for the entire period since testing began in March is 15 percent.

The state’s overall numbers related to virus activity declined as restrictions were kept in place in large counties that had had high numbers of cases, such as Linn and Johnson, and a few meat processing plants where outbreaks had occurred temporarily closed.

But a report prepared for IDPH by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa College of Public Health warned against reopening the state too soon, saying it could cause another wave of infections. That report was delivered days before Reynolds announced on April 27 she was loosening restrictions in 77 counties.

Asked during her April 29 press conference about the report and its model projecting an increase in cases if restrictions were soon lifted, Reynolds dismissed it as inferior to the data she sees on a daily basis.

“So, that’s a snapshot in time,” she said about the report. The governor added she did “appreciate all the work that went into the model.”

In an interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch published on Thursday, infectious disease physician Dr. Megan Srinivas warned that because of the virus’s 14-day incubation period, it could take up to five weeks for the state to see the impact of the governor’s decision to relax restrictions.

Srinivas pointed to the state’s 14-day rolling average of hospitalizations and deaths, which still showed an increase and not a sustained decrease as the CDC and experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have said are necessary conditions before reopening a state.

Srinivas also said that the lack of widespread testing in Iowa means no one has a clear idea of the true extent of COVID-19 in the state.

“It’s just inadequate to be making any decisions at this time,” she said.

On Friday, the Des Moines Register reported the team of researchers from the College of Public Health had delivered two more reports to IDPH, the first on April 29 and the second on May 4. IDPH declined to say what the reports contained, but a spokesperson for the governor’s office said they would be made public at some point on Friday.

“We have yet to receive questions or feedback from IDPH regarding the two most recent reports,” Joe Cavanaugh, head of the Department of Biostatistics at the College of Public Health and a lead author of the report, told the Register. “We realize they are very busy. We hope that they have found the information contained in the reports to be useful.”

Cavanaugh is not able to discuss the contents of the reports, because the contract between IDPH and the College of Public Health gives IDPH complete control over public release of the material until April 2021.

Reynolds was asked during her press conference if she had consulted any models, from the College of Public Health or other sources, about how COVID-19 may spread as restrictions are relaxed.

“We’re taking a look at a lot of different data,” the governor replied. “And I want to thank the University of Iowa and the public health for their input into the process.”

Reynolds said she was relying on “real-time data” produced by Test Iowa and other testing done in the state to make her decisions.

“We’re able to identify very early on where we might see clusters of virus activity in a potential hot-spot,” she said.

But since Test Iowa is only setting up sites — there are eight sites currently — in areas already known to be hot-spots, it’s unclear how that will help identify new areas that are potential hot-spots, or have a large number of asymptomatic people who can spread the virus.

The governor was also asked to describe her decision-making process when it comes to relaxing restrictions. How does she balance the possibility of increased infections with what she sees as the benefit of reopening quickly?

“Well, first of all, we never guaranteed that no one would get COVID-19,” Reynolds said. “That was never the goal from the beginning. It’s still in our communities, and it’s going to be in our communities for a while, until we either figure out a vaccine or it starts to diminish. But people need to continue to do what we’ve asked them to do.”

The governor said it is important people continue to practice social distancing in public and stay home if they feel sick.

Reynolds said she is continuing to review data about the virus daily, and noted, “there is a cost, a social cost, to also locking down and not figuring out a way to responsibly and safely start to open up the economy, get Iowans back to work, so they can take care of themselves and their families.”

Among the 18 deaths reported on Friday were four residents of Linn County. The death toll from COVID-19 in Iowa now stands at 336.

The 374 new cases IDPH reported on Friday include 11 residents of Linn County and three residents of Johnson County. The newly reported cases bring the state’s total to 14,049.

Last week, IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati accompanied Gov. Reynolds on her trip to the White House.

“She did such a good job in answering the president’s questions that during the press conference, [President Trump] invited her to be a part of the Coronavirus Task Force,” Reynolds said during her first press conference following the trip.

An unnamed White House official told Bloomberg News that what Trump said shouldn’t be considered a formal invitation to join the task force, but instead meant the task force may consult with Pedati in the future. The governor, however, insisted the president meant what he said and Pedati would be a member of the task force.

On Friday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence announced five people were being added to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Pedati was not one of them.

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