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Some counties see sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, but Iowa’s top health official ‘continues to be fine with what we’re seeing,’ Gov. Reynolds says


IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter and Gov. Kim Reynolds answer reporters’ questions at the May 27, 2020 press conference. — video stills

Despite sharp increases in COVID-19 case numbers in some parts of central and western Iowa — Wright County went from 25 cases last week to 124 by Wednesday morning, and the Iowa Department of Public Health has reported more than 400 new cases in Buena Vista County since Tuesday — IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati “continues to be fine with what we’re seeing,” according to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“I talked to Dr. Pedati this morning,” Reynolds said during her press conference on Wednesday. “They’re monitoring in BV and Wright. She continues to be fine with what we’re seeing. But we’re going to continue to monitor them.”

The governor said this in response to a question about what actions, other than testing and contact tracing, the state plans to take in places with spikes like Buena Vista County. The county has two Tyson Foods processing plants, located in Storm Lake.

Reynolds didn’t mention any actions beyond testing and contact tracing, which she said allows the state to “make sure that Iowans in the area are aware of what we’re seeing and provide them the additional information to be cautious when they’re out in the community.”

But many Iowans in Buena Vista County don’t feel they are being kept informed, as Art Cullen explained in an editorial in the Storm Lake Times on Wednesday morning.

Ten weeks after Gov. Reynolds told us to stay home, except for critical employees like meatpacking workers, we still don’t know actually how many people have tested positive in a community with more than 3,000 food processing employees. Nine days after full-scale testing started, as of Monday we had no idea how many total cases there were. We heard reports from doctors that the pace was quickening at the hospital. The hospital said that this is “real” but offered little more information. Is Sioux City full? Where do the seriously ill go? Why are helicopters flying out of Storm Lake?

What is going on?

The Sioux City Journal wrote on Wednesday morning that both of its city’s hospitals reported record high numbers of COVID-19 patients on Tuesday.

Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson asked Reynolds during the press conference if the 414 newly reported cases in Buena Vista were related to an outbreak at the processing plants in the county.

“We have not confirmed that yet,” the governor replied, before turning the question over to IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

“The Department of Public Health will confirm an outbreak when we’ve identified at least 10 percent of the employees at a particular location, in particular types of locations, like congregate settings where social distancing is not possible at work,” Reisetter said. “Once we have identified 10 percent of their employees have tested positive, that’s the determination that Dr. Pedati has made in terms of when it’s time to announce there’s been an outbreak at a facility like that.”

(It’s worth noting that because the definition recognizes outbreaks at businesses only when they occur in “particular types of locations,” the department would never consider a cluster of cases in a retail setting or a restaurant to be an “outbreak” and report it to the public as such, regardless of how many people are infected.)

When Reisetter said “it’s time to announce” an outbreak at a business, what she meant was IDPH would announce it if a reporter asks if there has been an outbreak. Reisetter said at the governor’s press conference on Tuesday that the department only discloses business outbreaks when specifically asked about them.

A reporter did specifically ask, and Reisetter confirmed new outbreaks at Purdue Farms pork plants in Sioux City and Sioux Center Tuesday. The governor defended the department’s decision not to automatically disclose business outbreaks — “I trust the media to do their job and continue to ask the questions” — before going on to boast about how transparent her administration is.

IDPH knew by May 11 more than enough workers had tested positive at both Purdue plants to meet its definition of an outbreak, but waited 15 days before publicly disclosing the outbreaks on Tuesday.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Erin Murphy of the Gazette asked Reisetter to explain why IDPH won’t disclose business outbreaks without first being asked about them.

“I think sometimes it takes us a little bit of time to pull together the information and to understand whether there has been an outbreak in a particular facility,” Reisetter said. “It also provides an opportunity for the business to independently, outside of having to do it a press conference, to notify their communities as Purdue Farms did.”

Reisetter did not explain why it would be in the public’s interest to wait for a company to issue its own press release about an outbreak. Speaking after Reisetter finished her reply, Reynolds said “our business partner” take their responsibility to inform the public of outbreaks “very seriously.” It’s unclear what Reynolds based that statement on.

People in Sioux Center were unaware of the outbreak at Purdue, according to Henderson. Tyson Foods spent weeks refusing to comment on outbreaks at its meat processing plant in Waterloo, where 444 workers tested positive, and its plant in Perry, where 770 cases were confirmed among its workers. Other plants have refused to confirm reported cases that have fallen short of IDPH’s definition of an outbreak.

On Wednesday, IDPH reported another 595 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19, including one resident of Johnson County and one resident of Linn County. The new cases brought the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in Iowa by 10 a.m. on Wednesday to 18,256.

The department also reported 21 more deaths from the virus, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 485. A resident of Linn County was one of the newly reported deceased.

During her press conference on Wednesday, Reynolds was asked about the Test Iowa sites not being able to accommodate Iowans with disabilities who cannot drive. The sites are drive-through only and do not offer walk-up testing. Test Iowa’s advice to people who don’t drive is to take a taxi or an Uber to a site. That, of course, would put the driver at risk of contracting the virus.

“I think the first thing that I want to say is we need to make sure that Test Iowa is not the only testing option, we have a whole host of options,” Reynolds said, before repeating a phrase she routinely uses when asked about problems with Test Iowa: “It’s another tool in the toolbox.”

The governor suggested people unable to access Test Iowa sites could be tested elsewhere, even though Test Iowa is the only testing program offering a test for anyone who requests one. She also suggested people unable to drive should ask “friends, family” to drive them to a site. Or inquire to see if their city or county can provide transportation.

Reynolds did not, however, suggest that the testing program for which the state is paying $26 million should change its procedures to serve the needs of Iowans with disabilities.


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