CORONAVIRUS

Reynolds wants to start reopening Iowa 'sooner rather than later'

Tip from Ashton Kutcher leads to $26M testing contract with Utah firm

Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Thursday at the Stat
Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Thursday at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

JOHNSTON — A week before her orders closing large swaths of Iowa are set to expire unless she changes them, Gov. Kim Reynolds continued to signal Thursday she’s likely to begin reopening Iowa’s economy.

“We must get Iowa back to work sooner rather than later,” the governor said in her daily COVID-19 briefing just hours after Iowa Workforce Development reported that 26,192 Iowans filed new unemployment claims over the past week — in addition to the 151,846 previously filed claims for benefits.

After days of spikes, the number of new positive cases of COVID-19 in Iowa dropped to levels similar to a week ago, according to numbers Reynolds presented.

The key to getting Iowans back to work will be testing, including the public-private partnership he announced Tuesday that will allow health officials to test more Iowans to detect and slow the virus spread.

Reynolds revealed it was Iowa native and actor Ashton Kutcher who connected her with Nomi Health, a Utah health care software and data company that now has a $26 million no-bid Test Iowa contract.

Once the partnership is at full capacity, up to 3,000 Iowans can be tested each day in addition to the testing already being done, she said.

Kutcher mentioned the work Nomi was doing for Utah while Reynolds was talking to him about making a coronavirus-related public service announcement, she said. He was familiar with someone involved and offered to make the introduction.

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According to his spokeswoman, neither Kutcher nor his venture capital firm are invested in any of the companies involved in the project. She declined a request to make Kutcher available for an interview.

Reynolds and aides spoke to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert about that state’s $5 million Test Utah program with Nomi, and “we were able to start that conversation and ramp it up relatively quickly.”

Iowa’s contract requires Nomi and its partners to supply 540,000 test kits, which will be performed at no cost to Iowans.

With the increased testing capabilities, “we’ll be able to target areas of concern early with the intent, again, of minimizing the impact of the virus among vulnerable populations and essential workforce,” Reynolds said.

The testing data, which has helped drive decisions about closing schools and workplaces, will be used “to reopen the state in a measured and responsible way while continuing to manage virus activity going forward,” she said.

Reynolds has ordered schools to close for the rest of the semester. But her orders closing many businesses expire this Thursday unless she modifies them.

She reported there were 176 new positive cases, down from a one-day high of 482 Tuesday, and 842 negative tests for a total of 25,338 people tested. That brought the total number of Iowans who have been identified as having COVID-19 symptoms or illnesses to 3,942. There are 282 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized and 1,492 people have recovered.

There were four coronavirus deaths in Polk County and one each in Muscatine and Bremer its first — bringing the statewide death toll to 96. The majority, 85 percent, has been among Iowans 61 and older and 51 percent are residents of long-term care facilities, Reynolds said.

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She also reported another outbreak at a long-term care facility — ManorCare Health Services in northeast Cedar Rapids, the state’s 12th such outbreak and Linn County’s third.

Linn County Public Health said 10 residents and staff members have tested positive at ManorCare. The there have been no deaths.

Despite that, the most recent data shows that Polk County has overtaken Linn for the most number of confirmed cases — 486 to 479.

Polk had 49 new cases followed by Black Hawk with 41, Woodbury with 20, Linn with 13 and Muscatine with 12.

In just two days since the launch of the Test Iowa Initiative, more than 121,000 Iowans have completed an online assessment at TestIowa.com designed to expand testing capabilities, Reynolds said.

“This overwhelming response tells me that Iowans are ready to take the next step to move our state forward and be part of the solution,” she said.

Already appointments for drive-through testing this weekend are filled. Reynolds expects to quickly ramp up testing.

“Not only will that help us fight the spread of the virus, it will inform economic decisions that will get Iowans back to work and life back to normal,” Reynolds said, even if “it might be a little bit of a new normal for a while.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

Grace King and John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed.

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