CORONAVIRUS

Gov. Kim Reynolds starts to reopen Iowa even as coronavirus tally spikes

Gov. Kim Reynolds announces updates on COVID-19 in the state Friday in Johnston. The governor permitted statewide health
Gov. Kim Reynolds announces updates on COVID-19 in the state Friday in Johnston. The governor permitted statewide health systems to resume elective procedures as well as farmers markets to go forward under distancing parameters starting Monday. (Olivia Sun/Des Moines Register)

JOHNSTON — On a day Iowa reported its highest tally yet of new coronavirus cases and deaths, Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday announced the first steps in her plan to reopen businesses and amenities.

The state confirmed 521 new COVID-19 cases and 11 additional virus-related deaths, pushing the total to over 100.

And the state expects the number to worsen in the days ahead, perhaps until a mid-May peak.

“I think that what we can expect is that we are going to see our case counts continue to increase and the peak is really going to occur when our case counts start coming back down,” Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, told reporters. “I think we’ll see that happen in the next two to three weeks.”

Despite that projection, Reynolds announced she was loosening some restrictions and would announce more aspects of her plan Monday.

While her orders closing down many businesses and limiting gatherings are in effect until at least Thursday, she ordered changes starting Monday that loosen restrictions on elective surgeries and summer farmer markets — still with many caveats.

“This is our first step of many to reopening Iowa and getting life and business back to normal as soon as possible,” Reynolds said Friday during her daily briefing on the state’s pandemic response. “It will be done in a responsible and a safe manner, but we are at a place where it’s time to start having that discussion.”

A key component of Iowa’s strategy for reopening depends on widespread testing. Earlier this week, the state signed a $26 million “Test Iowa” contract with Utah partners to greatly ramp up testing, starting this weekend and eventually checking 540,000 Iowans.

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An analysis by The Gazette shows the huge task ahead: So far, only a tiny fraction of Iowa’s population has been tested, including areas that have seen outbreaks.

Only 17 of Iowa’s 99 counties show testing rates of over 1 percent of their populations. Polk County, for instance, recently surpassed Linn County as reporting the most COVID-19 cases in Iowa. Yet is testing rate is below the average.

As testing has increased, so have the number of positive cases being discovered. That was the situation again with the record 521 new cases reported Friday.

Of those, 110 came from increased testing in Black Hawk County — home to a Tyson Fresh Meats pork processing plant that temporarily closed after an outbreak.

The state also reported a record number of deaths because of the virus in the previous 24 hours. In Linn County, four people died — two between 61 and 80 and two over 81. In Black Hawk County, three people died — one aged 41 to 60; one between 61 and 80; and one over 81. Two people over 81 died in Polk County; one person over 81 died in Bremer County; and one person between 61 and 80 died in Scott County.

Still, the state improved its assessment of northeast Iowa’s Region 6 health care district, inching down its score from 10 to 9 on a scale where 12 is the worst. The state said the improved score reflects an increase in the number of virus patients discharged from a hospital.

Reynolds said ramping up testing and expanding contact tracing is why she feels comfortable starting a gradual reopening of the state.

She said the testing will help the state identify areas where the virus is less disruptive, which will allow for a gradual, regional approach.

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Of the state’s six health care regions, the three that include Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Davenport and Waterloo are rated worse than the three in western and north central Iowa that include Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Mason City.

As of Friday, nearly half — 46 percent — of all confirmed cases were in four eastern and central Iowa counties: Polk, Black Hawk, Linn and Johnson.

Reynolds noted that the bulk of her public health emergency declarations are slated to expire Thursday, and new opening she plans to announce Monday would take effect Friday.

But she acknowledged that “hot spots” remain around the state that likely won’t be at the front end of her phased-in reopening approach.

“We’ll be monitoring and watching to see how the phased-in approach is working,” the governor said Friday. “You’re probably not going to see a statewide release on some of these areas that we’re going to be opening up. They will be somewhat targeted.”

Nine Republican state representatives issued a statement Friday saying they support the GOP governor’s efforts to reopen the state and encouraged her to keep going because “Iowans cherish their constitutional liberties.”

“Recognizing the profound importance of religious liberty, we support the lifting of the prohibition against religious services as soon as possible and support guidelines for safe worship, believing that Iowa’s faith-based community can be trusted to make wise decisions,” said the statement, issued on the Iowa House letterhead of Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison.

The statement praised Reynolds for “doing her best to show respect for individual liberties by not issuing shelter-in-place orders,” which the letter referred to as abuses of power.

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However, the leader of Democrats in the Iowa House said Reynolds was sending “mixed signals” to Iowans and not being transparent about what model she is using and what data is driving her decisions.

“We all want to reopen our economy and get life back to normal as quickly as possible,” said the statement from Todd Prichard, D-Charles City. “However, there is significant risk of more deaths, infections, and a prolonged economic downturn if restrictions are lifted too soon.”

John McGlothlen and Rod Boshart from The Gazette contributed.

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