CORONAVIRUS

Iowa lawmaker tries to walk back claim that no one has died from coronavirus

In fact, more than 700 Iowans have died as a result of it since March

Jeff Shipley speaks to the crowd March 20, 2019, between songs during the musical set of David Birchmier and Tyler Ander
Jeff Shipley speaks to the crowd March 20, 2019, between songs during the musical set of David Birchmier and Tyler Anderson during open mic night at Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield. The lawmaker is a stand-up comedian in his spare time. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

To first-term state Rep. Jeff Shipley, the threat of the coronavirus is overblown.

As he faces a reelection, the sauerkraut salesman, comedian and Republican lawmaker from Birmingham is unapologetic for views that at their best fall outside the political mainstream and at worst undermine public health recommendations to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

He wrapped up his first term earlier this month in the Statehouse by drawing sharp criticism and statewide headlines for downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. In a speech on the Capitol steps to a group advocating that parents, and not governments, should decide on vaccinations. Shipley claimed “the virus isn’t even killing anybody.” As of Wednesday morning, 732 Iowans have died from the novel coronavirus.

He later walked back his false claim on Twitter. In an interview, Shipley chalked up his statement to “putting my foot in my mouth.”

“I was at a rally, and I spoke quickly, unprepared and threw out some red meat for a crowd that was, you know, really wanting to hear controversial stuff,” he said.

Shipley still thinks the state should take a more libertarian approach to the virus — avoiding government-mandated shutdowns, mask-wearing and vaccinations once they are is available. Iowa is one of a handful of states where face coverings are not required in at least parts of the state. The mayor of Muscatine issued an order this week requiring masks be worn in public there, but there is growing agreement her proclamation is not legal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends face coverings as an effective and simple method to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that carry the deadly virus in places where social distancing is difficult.

Shipley says he’s OK wearing a mask in stores that ask him to — but thinks voluntary health measures are sufficient for people to follow.

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“Mother Nature created this virus, I feel the best solution is for human beings to be healthy enough to withstand it,” Shipley said, adding that for him personally, catching the virus and developing an antibody would be a more permanent strategy.

According to the CDC, it’s still unclear whether those who recover from COVID-19 can be infected with the virus again.

“People are a little bit disgruntled and upset and stressed out and impatient with some of the public health measures. So what I was really hoping to voice is we need a critical examination of the pandemic response in the emergency proclamations,” Shipley said of his speech at the Capitol.

Headlines from the controversial rally prompted Jefferson County Public Health Department Administrator Christine Estle, who said she normally doesn’t wade into politics, to share the post with the caption “No words ...” on Facebook and reach out to her representative.

“I felt that it was my responsibility as a public health administrator to reach out to him. And voice my concerns and frustrations on a local level,” she said.

She said they set up a half-hour Zoom call, the focus of which she said was on her concerns that the local department wasn’t receiving enough public health guidance from state-level departments. She said she largely receives the same guidance that’s issued publicly, adding the local department doesn’t have a “magic playbook nobody else has access to.”

“When you are in a medical crisis or a pandemic, you want to hear from medical professionals. You don’t want to hear from elected officials — that’s not their area of expertise,” she said, but added that she appreciated how quickly Shipley returned her request for a meeting.

The legislative district covers Van Buren and Davis counties and most of Jefferson County.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.