JOHNSTON — Buoyed by the prospects of a COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging shifts toward fewer cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday urged Iowans to stay vigilant during the holidays by following mitigation strategies to protect vulnerable people and keep businesses open.
“Iowa is ready,” said Reynolds, telling reporters she was optimistic that the state could begin receiving federally approved vaccination doses as early as December. Public health officials, she said, have a “fast-track” strategy to prioritize, allocate, distribute, transport, dispense and administer state-allocated vaccines through existing infrastructure based on availability.
Initial supplies likely will be limited, the governor noted, and “It will take some time for the vaccine to become widely available.” So the immediate targeted focus will be on immunizing first responders, Iowans who provide critical care and maintain critical infrastructure, and people with the highest risk for developing serious illness from the virus,
While any one of the three vaccines awaiting final approval “will be a significant step forward” in advancing Iowa’s overall pandemic recovery, said Reynolds, the immediate concern is the approaching holiday season and concern a new spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths could happen if Iowans don’t adjust family traditions.
“I still believe that together we can keep the numbers trending in the right direction,” she said in pushing a stay-the-course approach to flatten Iowa’s coronavirus curve, which is ranked fifth worst in the nation by a White House task force.
Reynolds’ news conference came on a day Iowa reported 3,872 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total since March to 215,612. Another 19 Iowans died from the disease over a 24-hour period, bringing the toll to 2,224. Hospitalizations ticked up to 1,351 after five days of declines.
Outbreaks at long-term care facilities remained a problem, with the number rising to 144 with 4,572 individuals having tested positive and the centers accounting for 1,008 of Iowa’s COVID-19 deaths.
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“No one has been untouched by this pandemic but for some the burden has been far heavier to carry, especially those who are grieving the loss of a loved one this holiday season. My heart goes out to you and your family,” the governor told a new conference at Iowa PBS studios.
“I believe that peace will soon be restored and our lives returned to normal if we continue our work together,” she added, telling Iowans “no challenge is bigger than our ability to overcome it. We don’t back down from difficulty.”
Earlier this month, Reynolds issued public health orders including a partial requirement for face masks in public — a mandate she had eschewed for weeks as unnecessary, having said she trusts Iowans to do the right thing without government orders. Her new orders include a requirement that anyone in a public indoor setting while also within 6 feet of other people for at least 15 minutes must wear a face mask.
“We have seen stabilization for sure, possibly maybe a trend down, but it is way, way, way too early to say this is really a trend. So we’re going to continue to monitor it and see if there’s other things that we need to do,” she told reporters.
The governor declined to change any of the public health orders currently in place, saying her goal “is to be very targeted with the mitigation efforts that we’ve put in place where we think we can have a significant impact.”
Reynolds said she and her public health team continue to monitor COVID-19 data and stand ready to “dial up and dial down depending on what we see.” But that requires finding a balance between protecting the lives and livelihoods of Iowans, she said.
“It’s hard on these business owners when they see their investment that they’ve put into this business be wiped away,” she said. “I’m hoping that there will be additional CARES money to help them get through this because it wasn’t their fault that we had to shut them down.”
Reynolds for months had dismissed calls for a mask mandate from public health and medical officials outside her administration — and from local officials, including in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, who acted on their own even as Reynolds said they do not have the authority.
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She did, however, encourage Iowans to wear masks as part of an overall strategy that includes social distancing, washing hands and staying home when sick.
Asked if she should have acted sooner to impose new restrictions this month, the governor told reporters “it’s easy to second guess and I appreciate the opportunity that you all have.”
“You have to be careful about over-mitigating to people and having them still feel like they’re part of the answer, the solution and we’re not over-acting,” she said.
From the outset, Reynolds said her administration has been aggressive in providing testing, personal protective equipment, limiting visitations and taking other steps to address outbreaks at long-term care facilities.
Many Iowans are battling “COVID fatigue,” she said, but they continue to “do the right thing” and are “stepping up” to slow community spread of the disease in anticipation of a vaccine.
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