Gov. Reynolds encourages social distancing, is cautious about ‘disruptive’ closings in COVID-19 update

A mask appeared on the face of the Irving Weber statue in downtown Iowa City on Thursday, March 12, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The first number Gov. Kim Reynolds mentioned at her Friday afternoon press conference on the state’s response to COVID-19 may have been more surprising than any of the other figures cited during the half-hour event: It’s only been five days since the first person in Iowa was diagnosed with the disease.

In that five days, one case grew to 17, after a resident of Harrison County in western Iowa tested positive on Friday.

Still, the governor struck an optimistic note as she discussed the challenges facing the state.

“As we prepare for what’s ahead, I’m confident that we have the right people in place to do the job,” she told reporters gathered at the State Emergency Operations Center in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

Johnson County residents account for 14 of the state’s diagnosed cases. All those people were on cruise in Egypt sponsored by the Friends Club of Hills Bank, as was the person in Carroll County diagnosed with COVID-19 on Thursday.

The Friends Club sponsors travel packages and other group activities for Hills Bank customers “50 or better” (which explains why all the infected members, except for one, are between 60 and 81 years old), who have at least $10,000 on deposit with the bank.

According to a written statement from Hills, “all Friends Club gatherings and travel have been suspended until further notice.”

The bank added, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals who have tested positive and hope they each have a rapid and full recovery.”

At her press conference, Reynolds stressed that so far all of Iowa’s COVID-19 cases are “travel-related.”

“At this time, Iowa is not experiencing community-spread of the virus,” she said. “However, we anticipate it will happen and now is the time to prepare.”

The governor said she has ordered state employees to stop “all non-essential business travel.” And if a state employee takes a personal trip outside the state to “an infected area, they will be expected to self-isolate at home for 14 days before they return to work.”

Reynolds, however, would not go so far as to recommend the cancellation of large-scale public events, even though private groups, from the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Society of Cedar Rapids to the Mission Creek Festival, have already canceled their events to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Reynolds said it was important to wait and make sure major actions that might prove disruptive aren’t taken too soon.

This includes suspending classes at K-12 schools as other states have done, Reynolds said. The governor explained the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Department of Public Health “do not recommend closing schools at this time.”

On Thursday, Des Moines Public Schools — the state’s largest school district — canceled all classes until the end of month in response to COVID-19.

Instead of extending that action to districts statewide, the governor recommended Iowans continue to take the standard precautions — washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, covering the mouth when coughing, staying home if feeling unwell — and also engage in social distancing, which means attempting to stay six feet away from other people.

WATCH: Providing an update on COVID-19

Posted by Governor Kim Reynolds on Friday, March 13, 2020

Reynolds turned over the podium to Dr. Caitlin Pedati, medical director of IDPH, who explained the importance of social distancing.

Pedati said social distancing is an important way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, which is passed to people through droplets coughed or sneezed out by an infected person. Keeping a distance of six feet makes it less likely such droplets could be transferred from person to person.

“Slowing down and then spreading out transmission of a virus is going to allow all our critical partners, which include people like hospital personnel, police, EMS, drug manufacturers and more … [to] have a little bit more time to help respond,” Pedati said. “It also helps to keep our systems from becoming overwhelmed at once, so that we can maintain sufficient hospital beds, staff and supplies as we need them.”

Pedati also reiterated the advice that senior citizens and people with compromised immune systems avoid crowded places, to reduce their chances of contracting COVID-19.

At the end of the press conference, a reporter pointed out to Reynolds “the Iowa Business Council has canceled events and the Des Moines Symphony has canceled concerts.”

“Are you asking people to rethink this, since you’re not discouraging people from gathering in large groups?” the reporter asked.

The governor replied with a long statement that never actually answered the question.

You know, those are decision they’ll have to make but what we’re saying is that if you’re unsure what to do, you have a great resource with the Department of Public Health. That they have standards and protocols in place that they would be happy to walk through you with. [sic] They’ve sent out several to schools and businesses, health care facilities, nursing homes, long-term-care facilities. [sic]

But again, it’s just people have to be responsible as Dr. Pedati said. If you’re not feeling well, you shouldn’t attend a large event. If you are a vulnerable Iowan, a senior with with underlying conditions, you should not attend large events.

As we move through this, and as we learn more, and as we reassess, you know, it is evolving every day. And so we’ll be reassessing on a daily basis and, you know, the recommendations may change going forward. But right now we’re going to base it on an incident-by-incident — I don’t know — decisions on what we’re seeing come in.

Shortly after the press conference concluded, the governor’s office sent out a press release announcing she had signed “a proclamation to temporarily suspend requirements for transportation of food, medical supplies, cleaning products, and other household goods by removing restrictions on oversize and overweight loads.”

IDPH has established a 24/7 hotline for people with questions about COVID-19, which can be reached by dialing 211. According to the most recent information published by the department, there are currently 156 Iowans being monitored by public health officials due to potential exposure to the coronavirus.

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