CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa researchers project hundreds more coronavirus deaths

UI researchers privately warned that the COVID-19 would continue spreading through the state even before Gov. Reynolds relaxed social distancing policies

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

 By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau, and Ryan Foley, Associated Press

For the second time in a month, Gov. Kim Reynolds has discounted the findings of public health experts at the University of Iowa — whose advice the state sought — and moved to reopen more businesses, albeit with limits, across the state.

The UI College of Public Health COVID-19 Response Group researchers, including some of the state’s top epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, warned that hundreds more Iowans will likely die through the end of May even if widespread business closures remained — much less if they started to reopen, as some have been.

“Evidence shows that COVID-19 will continue to spread in Iowa, likely at an increasing rate,” the team led by Dr. Joseph Cavanaugh, head of the university’s biostatistics department, concluded in a May 4 paper.

In April, the same group warned of a “second wave” of the disease and recommended that preventive measures stay in place.

Days after receiving the report, however, Reynold allowed malls, restaurants, gyms and other business to partially reopen in 77 Iowa counties. This last week, she extended that to include the other 22 counties, which contain Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

Reynolds has downplayed the importance of such models and continued her push to reopen the economy, despite surging numbers of deaths this week.

In the two weeks since Reynolds loosened restrictions in those 77 counties, the number of known cases in one of them — Wapello County — has shot up from 10 to 328 as of Wednesday, research by The Gazette shows. Crawford, another of those counties, saw positive cases shoot up from 24 to 300 in the same period. Pottawattamie County went from 33 to 138 cases.

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On Friday, the governor said she appreciated the UI’s work but she was relying on real-time data from hospitals and testing to manage the state’s pandemic response. She said she was encouraged by increased testing, declining percentages of positive tests statewide and the amount of hospital resources available.

She also warned that not reopening the state would have a “social cost,” including high unemployment, rising domestic abuse and food insecurity.

“There is a cost, a social cost to also locking down and not figuring out a way to responsibly and safely start to open up the economy, get Iowans back to work so that they can take care of themselves and their families,” Reynolds said during her daily briefing at the state emergency operations center in Johnston.

The expanded reopening of Iowa’s businesses comes at a time when virus-related deaths continue to climb. The state Friday confirmed 18 additional deaths, which continued the recent trend of pushing the seven-day average for single-day deaths to a new high.

Friday’s seven-day average for single-day deaths was 13.3, the highest since the first virus-related death in Iowa in late March.

The newly reported deaths include four in Linn County and the first in Monroe County.

On the other hand, hospitalizations — both total and new admissions in the past 24 hours — continued to plateau or trend downward.

The state Friday reported 387 virus-related hospitalizations; that seven-day average has plateaued over the past week. And the state reported 23 new admissions over the past 24 hours; that seven-day average has been falling slowly for 10 days.

Reynolds said the state health care system’s capacity to handle patients is one of the reasons she felt comfortable allowing more businesses to reopen. In addition to the positive data she cited, she said requests from hospitals for personal protective equipment for health care workers have been fulfilled and the state still has a stockpile.

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“We never guaranteed that no one would get COVID-19. That was never the goal from the beginning,” Reynolds said. “The goal was to make sure that we protected the health of Iowans, that we managed our health care resources to work to flatten the curve and not overwhelm our health care system (and) hospitals. So that’s what we’ll continue to watch, to make sure that they have the capacity to not only treat individuals that have tested positive for COVID that might need hospitalization, but that they can also take care of other Iowans that would meet that need as well. And we have done that.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health had asked experts at the UI College of Public Health for technical assistance forecasting the pandemic’s severity in Iowa.

A contract signed last month said the modeling would be for the state’s internal use and barred the school from releasing any findings for a year.

The state released the university’s latest two reports Friday in response to media inquiries.

Reynolds said she remains in a “modified” quarantine herself.

She visited the White House May 6, and two days later participated in events with Vice President Mike Pence during his trip to Des Moines.

Around that time, members of Pence’s and President Donald Trump’s staff tested positive for the coronavirus.

Reynolds said she did not come in direct contact with either of the staff members who tested positive, but went into her modified quarantine out of “an abundance of caution.” She is tested daily, has her temperature taken multiple times per day, wears a mask when interacting with her staff and is limiting those interactions as much as possible.

Reynolds said she plans to remain in the quarantine for the recommended 14 days, which would take her through Wednesday.

John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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