CORONAVIRUS

Iowa sees first case of 'community spread' coronavirus

JOHNSTON — Gov. Kim Reynolds called on Iowans Saturday night to take more aggressive measures to limit the spread of coronavirus now that the number of confirmed cases has risen to 18 and there is evidence of “community spread” of the outbreak.

The Iowa Department of Public Health “has determined, based on the new COVID-19 case and the announcement this evening of community spread in Omaha, Neb., there is now community spread in our state,” the governor said.

Reynolds told a news conference that the Health Department was notified the additional positive case involves a Dallas County resident in the 61-80 age range.

The 17 previous Iowa cases were related to travel. The origins of this new case were yet unknown — thus termed “community spread.”

The news came shortly after Iowa’s court system and regents university system also escalated their responses to the virus spread.

Calling Iowa’s situation “very fluid,” Reynolds and Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the Health Department’s state epidemiologist and medical director, said “mitigation measures should be implemented immediately to have the most significant impact on slowing the spread of the virus.”

Due to the detection of community spread, they said, there are new recommendations for individuals with underlying conditions, and all Iowans should be prepared for cancellations and disruptions in routine activities.

“Iowans have been preparing for weeks and we are confident that we are ready.”

The governor said at this time state health officials are not recommending school closures.

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But, she said, if a school has a positive case in a student, staff member or visitor, a short-term suspension of a few days is recommended for cleaning to mitigate spread of the virus.

If there is significant absenteeism of staff and students, the district should consider a short to medium length suspension of two to four weeks, Reynolds added.

For substantial community spread, longer suspensions of four to eight weeks or more are recommended, they advised school officials.

School officials were advised to follow federal guidance on school closures if a school-based case is identified.

The governor said she met Saturday with representatives of the grocery and food supply industry and with representatives of Iowa hospitals to inform them of the evolving situation and to make plans accordingly to prevent supply shortages.

She said she planned to meet with legislative leaders Sunday to discuss the status of the current legislative session and policies pertaining to the Capitol building.

Reynolds and Padati advised against large gatherings of more than 250 people in an area.

Leaders of institutions and organizers of events should begin to act on their contingency plans for large gatherings, including church services, Reynolds said. Iowans should consider making adjustments for smaller gatherings involving high risk groups.

Individuals 60 years of age and older with underlying conditions should stay home and avoid gatherings or other situations of potential exposures, including travel to affected areas, the governor told a news conference held at the state’s emergency response center.

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Also Saturday, the Iowa Supreme Court ratcheted up the court system’s response, issuing an order that criminal and civil trials involving a jury that has not been seated yet be put on hold until at least April 20.

“The procedures in this order keep Iowa courts open to the fullest possible extent while protecting the public and our employees by giving judges the tools and flexibility that they need,” state Chief Justice Susan Christensen said in a statement.

The order allows jury trials that already have begun to proceed, and allows non-jury trials during the period as usual.

Among the Eastern Iowa criminal cases the ruling affects are the March 30 trials of two defendants in Linn County: Jermaine Walker, who is charged with killing Wayne Jones at a Nov. 2, 2019, party; and Lamont James, who is HIV positive and charged with sexually abusing a teenage girl and transmitting the disease to her.

Unless the order is extended, the pause should not affect the trial of Andre Richardson, set for trial May 4 on murder charges in a double homicide outside a Cedar Rapids smoke shop.

The order declares that the emergency response to the coronavirus “constitutes good cause” for any delays that might affect a criminal’s right to a speedy trial. But the order makes it a priority to reschedule such cases when the delay is over.

The order also allows for key parties to request they appear by video conference rather than in person for sentencing hearings. Convicted killer Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester, is scheduled to be sentenced April 17, three days before the order is set to expire unless extended. He was convicted last month in the cold-case murder of Michelle Martinko, 18, in 1979 at Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids.

Earlier Saturday, the Iowa Board of Regents recalled all faculty, staff and students from the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa who currently are outside the United States.

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The board previously had recalled only those in countries with a Level 3 travel advisory. The new directive applies to all countries.

The board said it was allowing its institution presidents “the flexibility to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis

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

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