DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds did not consult her own public health department before lifting Iowa’s remaining COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including its partial face mask mandate, the agency’s director told Democratic lawmakers Monday.
During a weekly briefing on the state’s pandemic response, Democratic lawmakers asked Iowa Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia whether Reynolds consulted the agency before the governor on Friday lifted the state’s remaining pandemic mitigation strategies.
Garcia told the legislators the department was not consulted on the decision — that the governor made that decision on her own, the Democrats said.
Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state epidemiologist, was also on the weekly call, the Democrats said.
Asked for comment by The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau, Reynolds’ spokesman in an emailed statement did not deny the assertion.
“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic and is following through with her commitment to dial back restrictions based on a significant decrease in COVID hospitalizations,” spokesman Pat Garrett wrote in the message.
A state public health department spokeswoman said the department advises the governor daily on the state’s pandemic response, but did not address whether Reynolds sought the agency’s advice on her latest decision.
“It took my breath away for a moment,” said Lindsay James, a Democratic legislator from Dubuque, who was on Monday morning’s public health briefing. “It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that the governor didn’t consult her own public health experts when making such a major public health decision for our state. This is not a small decision; this is a major decision.”
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On Friday afternoon, Reynolds updated her COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, eliminating most restrictions that had been in place to combat the disease’s spread. Her latest update ended a requirement that people wear face coverings in public when around other people for at least 15 minutes; lifted a cap on the number of customers businesses like restaurants and bars could have at the same time, as well as social distancing requirements in the businesses; and lifted a cap on the number of people who can gather in public.
Reynolds’ decision to cease mitigation strategies came at a time when COVID-19 numbers have been steadily decreasing in Iowa, but also as the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution has been among the slowest in the country, a new and more contagious strain of the virus has been detected here and the state has ordered K-12 schools to offer 100-percent, in-person instruction to students.
The two-week averages for new cases and COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths have been dropping precipitously since the pandemic’s largest spike, in late November and early December. However, those averages remain higher than they were at any point in the nearly yearlong pandemic before that winter surge.
And while the COVID-19 vaccine is now available and being distributed across the country, the rollout in Iowa has been among the slowest in the country. Roughly 8 percent of Iowans have received at least the first of two shots required for the vaccine as of Monday; that’s among the three lowest rates in the country, according to federal data tracked by the Washington Post and New York Times.
Last week, Iowa’s state public health department confirmed three cases of a new COVID-19 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, that medical experts believe spreads more easily than the original strain of the virus. Experts also believe, however, that current vaccines are effective against the strain.
Reynolds’ actions were not endorsed by the federal government’s top public health official.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked Monday morning during a media briefing whether Reynolds’ removal of most mitigation strategies was wise.
“Given that we’re still over a hundred thousand cases a day, I would discourage any such activity,” Walensky said, according to national media reports. “We still have this emerging threat of variants, and I would just simply discourage any of those activities. We really need to keep all of the mitigation measures at play here if we’re really going to get control of this pandemic.”
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Reynolds is scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday. It will be her first public appearance since her office announced the lifted restrictions late Friday.
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