CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa researchers repeat warning about reopening too soon

Universal use of face shields could return Iowa to pre-COVID-19 policy, researchers say

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — Hammering on a point they’ve been making for weeks, University of Iowa public health researchers Wednesday submitted a final coronavirus assessment to the Reynolds administration warning that reopening the state too soon will bring a “large increase in daily infections.”

“Absent any additional measures to keep the outbreak from spreading, such an approach still is expected to yield more infections and hence deaths,” according to the UI College of Public Health COVID-19 Response Group.

The group’s final report for the governor’s office — which went ahead with plans to ease restrictions and reopen the state, discounting the UI group’s previous advice — notes one “reopening” strategy that would hold promise involves universal community use of face shields.

“If implemented statewide, this approach could allow interventions to be relaxed with marginal increases in infections, even if face shields perform far worse than expected and are only 25 percent effective,” according to the report. “If implementing face shields universally has an efficacy at the higher end of our plausible range, we could potentially return to a mostly pre-COVID policy status, while still continuing to reduce the number of new infections.”

To make their point, the UI researchers created a public web application allowing users to explore the impact of relaxed social distancing to various degrees on different dates, in conjunction with variances in universal protective equipment use.

The application, while not yet live, will be available soon at covid-19.public-health.uiowa.edu, according to the report.

In March, the governor’s office took up the university on its offer to help conduct COVID-19 research. The group issued reports in April and May warning that “prevention measures should remain in place” and Iowa likely would see a “second wave of infections” if they didn’t.

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Rejecting that advice, Gov. Kim Reynolds has moved forward with a phased reopening — allowing restaurants, hair salons, fitness centers, bars and malls, for instance, to reopen in stages and with restrictions.

This week, Reynolds announced outdoor performance venues, casinos, bowling alleys, amusement parks, skating rinks and outdoor playgrounds can reopen Monday. And she said larger gatherings of more than 10 people can resume — so long as they follow new measures, like limiting venue capacity to 50 percent and maintaining 6-feet distancing requirements.

She repeatedly has said she believes health and the economy must both be priorities.

“Our recovery is contingent on our ability to protect the life and livelihood of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other; we must prioritize both to move forward,” Reynolds said Tuesday.

Her announcement allowing more openings came just days after the UI College of Public Health research team again warned in a white paper to the state of dire implications from reopening too soon. The group, comprised of some of the state’s top epidemiologists and infection disease experts, stressed hundreds more Iowans likely will die through the end of the month even if widespread closures continued.

If they don’t, the death toll would be greater, according to that earlier paper, which this week’s final report reiterated.

In the new report, UI researchers break down their conclusions into four main points:

• Social distancing policies imposed March 17 “substantially slowed” spread of COVID-19.

• If the state’s social distancing actions had come one to two weeks later, COVID-19 cases would have been worse.

Had Iowans worn face shields in conjunction with social distancing policies, the rise in coronavirus incidents would have slowed or even decreased.

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• Even without social distancing measures, the use of face shields would have slowed COVID-19’s acceleration.

If face shields provide a high level of protection — like many researchers believe they do — the UI experts surmise “implementing them could rapidly and dramatically reduce the number of infections across the state, allowing society to reopen safely while continuing to decrease the number of new infections.”

Earlier this month, three UI experts urged widespread use of face shields in an opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The JAMA piece, written by UI College of Medicine professors Eli Perencevich, Daniel Diekema and Michael Edmond, acknowledged business shutdowns can’t remain forever — given the economic implications — but also noted insufficient testing.

“Now is the time for adoption of this practical intervention,” the professors said of face shields.

The shields — clear plastic guards that comprehensively cover a person’s entire face while allowing them to speak, breathe and see unimpeded — differ from face masks, which often are made of cloth, provide less protection and stifle a person’s breathing and ability to communicate.

“Face shields are durable, easily cleaned, reduce the potential for autoinoculation by preventing the wearer from touching their face, and most importantly significantly reduce the amount of inhalation exposure to viruses,” according to the UI researchers.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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