116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Area health officials are encouraging residents to follow new federal health guidelines that advise Americans — even those who are fully vaccinated — to wear masks in certain situations in areas with high levels of virus transmission.
These urgings come despite Gov. Kim Reynolds’ rejection of the new federal advisory this past week.
That guidance, from the Disease Control and Prevention, includes Iowans living in dozens of counties where virus transmission is higher than in other parts of the state.
“We follow the CDC’s guidelines, and that’s exactly what we’re going to be communicating to folks here in Linn County,” said Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi. “We are a science-based agency, we don’t participate in any sort of political football.”
Though the governor called the move “counterproductive to our vaccination efforts,” local public health entities say this change in direction was unavoidable due to the drop in the number of Iowans getting the shot in recent weeks.
“For several weeks now, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in vaccinations,” said Sam Jarvis, community health division manager at Johnson County Public Health. “And as many have seen, so many communities are looking at creative ways to incentivize and reach persons to get vaccinated with low success.”
As of Wednesday, about 55 percent of Iowans 12 and older — the eligible age group to receive the shot — are fully vaccinated.
‘The new reality’
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance recommending people in counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of community transmission of COVID-19 wear masks in public indoor settings. That includes people who are fully vaccinated.
This new advisory is a reversal of the agency’s position, in place since May, that said vaccinated Americans do not need to mask up indoors.
The CDC long has maintained people who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors.
The guidance comes as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads nationwide, prompting a surge of new cases in parts of the country with low vaccination rates. Federal data shows that more breakthrough infections with this virus variant are on the rise in fully immunized Americans.
The CDC has found that even fully vaccinated people can carry and spread the coronavirus to others, even when they are not showing symptoms. An internal CDC report, obtained by national media outlets, states scientists believe vaccinated individuals infected with the Delta variant may be able to transmit the virus as easily as those who are unvaccinated.
“This is what the new reality is,” Dwivedi said. “We are not done with the pandemic. We might be tired of the pandemic, but it is not tired of us.”
Iowa is rated overall to have substantial spread of the virus, but counties are experiencing different levels of transmission.
As of July 25, dozens of counties across Iowa have substantial or high levels of community spread.
That includes Black Hawk County. The county’s public health director, Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, said COVID-19 “is not going anywhere without increased vaccination.”
“We need to take this seriously,” she said in a statement. “No one wants to return to the isolation we experienced last year.
“We encourage residents to wear a mask when in public indoor settings, continue hand washing and social distancing, and please take advantage of vaccine opportunities in the community.”
Only 10 counties — including Washington, Louisa and Jefferson counties in southeast Iowa — reported low levels of community transmission.
“At this moment, it’s good to become familiar with the CDC guidance and, if planning to travel, to monitor the situation of where they are going,” Jarvis said.
As of this past week, Johnson and Linn counties had moderate community transmission and do not meet the criteria for this new federal recommendation. Residents and others visiting these counties are not advised by federal officials to wear masks indoors at this time.
However, county public health officials say its never a bad idea to wear a mask in crowded, public spaces. Because of the Delta variant spreading nationwide, Dwivedi said he has begun wearing a mask while grocery shopping and visiting other public spaces, as a precaution.
“There is no harm in wearing a mask,” Jarvis said. “If anything, we saw how effective they are during flu season and with other respiratory viruses. Masks are effective.”
State officials continue to encourage vaccines
Reynolds rejected the new federal advisory this past week, issuing a statement that telling fully vaccinated Iowans to wear masks “is not only counterproductive to our vaccination efforts, but also not grounded in reality or common sense.”
The Republican governor further elaborated at a Wednesday news conference that she believes the new guidance “sets us back in what we’re trying to do with encouraging people to get vaccinated.”
“I don’t feel that we should punish everybody because some have made the decision not to,” Reynolds added.
The Iowa Department of Public Health did not answer The Gazette’s questions on Wednesday as to whether the new advisory could impact the vaccination effort statewide.
“IDPH has always emphasized the importance of using the tools available to protect Iowans from the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including masks, hand washing and social distancing,” Department Spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand said. “The vaccine is currently the best tool to protect yourself and prevent the spread of COVID-19 and we continue to encourage all Iowans to get vaccinated.”
Dwivedi disagreed with the governor that the new federal guidance would be detrimental to efforts to distribute COVID-19 shots to Iowans.
“I don’t think anywhere in CDC guidelines is discouraging people, its asking people to be proactive and get vaccinated,” he said.
Jarvis said these adjustments in federal advisory are “expected,” particularly as federal officials are learning more about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it.
It’s also expected as infection rates across the state continue to go up, public health officials say. As of Wednesday, the latest state coronavirus data available, the seven-day average for new cases is the highest it’s been since early May of this year.
The surge in new daily cases is also raising alarms with public health officials, prompting warnings that those numbers will continue to go up based on the current vaccination rate — with only about half the eligible population immunized.
“It’s really important for people to get vaccinated and follow the measures that would stop the spread of the disease,” Dwivedi said.
Jarvis said residents should continue to have nonjudgmental conversations with friends and family who are not yet vaccinated and help dispel some of the myths they may have heard. They should also encourage unvaccinated people to talk to their health care provider about the vaccines, too.
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