CORONAVIRUS

Iowa breaks from CDC by softening quarantine rules for COVID-19

Move could let more students stay in school

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Tuesday in John
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Tuesday in Johnston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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JOHNSTON — Iowa is breaking with federal guidance on quarantine recommendations in a move that could allow more students to remain in school after coming into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati on Tuesday announced that state guidelines will no longer recommend people quarantine after coming in contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19 if both individuals were wearing face masks.

Previously, the state recommended any person who came into close contact with someone who tested positive for the infection should quarantine for two weeks — masks or no.

Under the new guidance, that person would not have to quarantine if both individuals were wearing face masks during the close contact.

Reynolds said the decision was made after talking with school leaders and examining state public health data.

“Public health has had a lot of conversations with school administrators and families about their experiences in quarantine, and the fact that we don’t frequently see additional infection in situations where people have been wearing face coverings,” Pedati said Tuesday during the governor’s news conference at Iowa PBS studios.

Pedati conceded the policy breaks with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says a person could still be a close contact even if he or she was wearing a mask while around someone with COVID-19.

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“Masks are meant to protect other people in case you are infected, and not to protect you from becoming infected,” the CDC website says to the question.

Pedati said the state studied four school districts in northwest Iowa where the virus is spreading rapidly and case counts are elevated. Among the four school districts, one was requiring students to wear face masks and three were not. Pedati said the districts without a face mask mandate had 30 to 130 percent higher rates of COVID-19 cases than the district with the mask mandates.

Pedati also pointed to a study this summer that showed face masks were effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 from two hairdressers who had the virus, and that nearby states Nebraska and Wyoming made similar changes to their public health recommendations.

“Taking all this information together, we’re able to update our recommendation,” Pedati said.

Wyoming has the highest reproduction rate in the country, at 1.29. Reproduction rate is the average number of people infected by a single positive case. A reproduction rate over 1.0 is considered spread. Iowa’s reproduction rate is 1.12, as of Tuesday. Nebraska’s was 1.07, and Illinois’ was 1.0.

The recommendation change drew a swift rebuke from the state’s largest public education employee union.

“Unfortunately, Gov. Reynolds’ newest recommendations are not consistent with what the scientific community continues to tell us about protecting ourselves, our students and our communities from COVID-19,” Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said in a statement. “Weeks into the school year, we are once again grappling with cloudy information that has no basis in science. At the very least, the guidance should come with mandatory face coverings statewide, including continued social distancing and other mitigation efforts designed to promote health and safety in our public schools.”

After a spike of new cases when college students returned to campus this fall and a subsequent reduction, new cases have once again been rising in Iowa over the past two weeks.

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More importantly, the seven-day rolling average number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations is at its highest point since early June, and recent hospitalizations are higher than they have ever been over during the pandemic.

Reynolds on Tuesday said her administration is in constant contact with hospitals, and that hospitals have not yet indicated they cannot handle the increasing number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

Reynolds also said the state expects to receive from the federal government roughly 900,000 new COVID-19 tests, roughly 40,000 to 50,000 tests per week from now through December. Reynolds said the tests will be prioritized for rural areas where case numbers are climbing and access to testing may be sparse, and for school staff and students.

Reynolds said the tests are being offered, “to assist our efforts with reopening our schools and reigniting our economies.”

Reynolds said the state is working on a distribution plan for the new tests and will announce more details once that plan is developed.

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