CORONAVIRUS

Iowa beginning talks on opening the state

But hot spots persist and peak of coronavirus still weeks away

LINE CHART: Iowa deaths from coronavirus as of April 15, 2020
LINE CHART: Iowa deaths from coronavirus as of April 15, 2020
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JOHNSTON — Iowa officials are targeting their limited testing options to hot-spot COVID-19 outbreaks while starting to look strategically at how they gradually can reopen the state’s economy and get people back to work without touching off a new wave of cases.

Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters she plans to start talks Thursday with her administration’s department heads on “what it looks like to really stabilize, recover and then grow the economy in Iowa” — possibly starting in northwest counties with few or no positive COVID-19 cases before moving eastward.

However, she said Iowa’s COVID-19 spread likely won’t peak until month’s end at the earliest, and there remain troubling signs:

The state added its seventh long-term care facility outbreak, this one at the Wilton Retirement Center in a Muscatine County; and nearly 900 test kits were deployed to the closed Tyson meat-processing plant in Columbus Junction to assess and track a major outbreak at that Louisa County facility.

Reynolds reported Wednesday that Iowa’s coronavirus death toll had grown to 53 with the addition of four fatalities: Clayton County’s first death from the virus, involving a resident aged 81 or older; an elderly adult over the age of 80 in Polk County; and two older adults in the 61-80 age range in Allamakee and Johnson counties.

“All deaths in Iowa are among older or elderly individuals and those with underlying health conditions,” the governor said, adding that 49 percent of Iowa’s deaths and more than 10 percent of its positive COVID-19 cases involve residents of long-term care facilities.

Also Wednesday, Kelly Garcia, director of the state Department of Human Services, issued a call to Iowans to be on the lookout for possible abuse and neglect incidents that may otherwise go unnoticed and unreported — especially ones involving children and vulnerable residents — as families hole up in their homes under stressful isolation.

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“We know that Iowans are going to need us now more than ever — many for the first time,” said Garcia, who joined Reynolds for her daily news conference at the state emergency response center.

Pointing to anecdotal cases of abuse and neglect nationally — sometimes in situations where a victim may be sheltered with an abuser — Garcia said neighbors, family members and faith-based groups should step in or contact authorities “if you hear something or see something, say something” due to the absence of mandatory reporters like teachers, doctors or others under current COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“We don’t believe that abuse has gone away but the reports have,” Garcia said in promoting the state’s 800-362-2178 hotline to report abuse or neglect incidents, and urging schools to make routine “comfort calls” to children no longer attending classes.

Overall, 1,995 Iowans have tested positive for the virus, Reynolds said, including 96 new cases.

Twenty more were hospitalized Wednesday, bringing the current hospitalization total to 171. A total of 78 patients were in intensive care units and 43 required ventilators to assist their breathing, Reynolds said.

Another 407 Iowans who were tested in the most recent Iowa Department of Public Health data had negative results, bringing that number to 17,874 negative tests.

Also, 908 Iowans have recovered from the coronavirus, or 46 percent of those who have tested positively in 82 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Reynolds said hundreds of tests are being sent to meat-processing plants that have been hit with COVID-19 outbreaks, especially the pork-processing plant in Columbus Junction.

State health officials said one in every 160 Iowans has been tested for coronavirus, but Reynolds conceded Wednesday that availability of test kits beyond the 3,000-plus at the State Hygienic Lab and other sources is an issue as her economic recovery task force begins to formulate plans to begin reopening the state. She has ordered schools, many businesses and myriad other things closed until at least April 30.

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“We’re starting to see positive cases level off but that will change as we do targeted testing,” Health Department Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said.

“As we do more testing, we might find more cases that we wouldn’t otherwise find,” she noted. “The reason that we’ve haven’t done widespread surveillance testing in our state to date is because we just haven’t had the testing supplies available to do that.”

On Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of 66 immigrants’ rights, refugee, labor, faith and other community organizations held a teleconference to issue a statement asking Reynolds and officials with the state Health Department and Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administrations office to take immediate action to protect workers from the virus transmission.

Reynolds said she is contacting all of Iowa’s 18 meatpacking plants to discuss mitigation efforts and reporting, and she noted state and federal agriculture agencies are conducting on-site visits and inspections out of concern for a major food production source.

“We’re going to continue to look for opportunities to bring more tests to the state of Iowa because we know that that will be a big piece — it will be something that we can utilize as we talk about opening the state back up,” the governor said, along with contact tracing to better track Iowa’s COVID-19 cases.

Reynolds noted that two health care regions on the western half of Iowa have overall ratings of 4 and 6, based on metrics that include hospitalizations, while regions including the Des Moines and Iowa City areas have worse ratings of 8, and Northeast Iowa including Cedar Rapids rates 9 — close the worst.

The governor said “everybody should be making plans” for eventually opening back up the Iowa economy, but added that “we’re looking at what things we can look at to start to dial things back up and open and start to open up areas of the state.

“In Northwest Iowa right now, the numbers are really low and so we’ll take a look at what it looks like up there” and then apply that to entire state, she said. “We want to get things up and going. We have to do it responsibly. We have to be cautious in how we do that because we don’t want to just flip the light switch and then have another spike happen in a week — that’s not going to be beneficial for anybody. We don’t want to open things up only to say in a week we’ve got to shut it back down. We have to be strategic and thoughtful and responsible in how we do that.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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