CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus has major impact on Iowa despite few cases

Stephanie Silva (left) of Iowa City has her temperature taken by Lynn Rhinehart (right), a guest services staff member a
Stephanie Silva (left) of Iowa City has her temperature taken by Lynn Rhinehart (right), a guest services staff member at a virus screening checkpoint outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Friday, March 13, 2020. Members of the public are asked whether they have been running a temperature, have a cough or have felt ill. They then have their temperature taken and receive a sticker letting staff know they have been screened. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES --- The coronavirus seems to be punching above its weight in Iowa.

As of Saturday, there were only 18 confirmed cases of the virus among the state’s population of 3.1 million.

Yet the threat of the virus’ potential to spread has caused significant upheaval in the lives of Iowans across the state.

Significant public events have been cancelled from river to river. Colleges are moving to online-only instruction. All new court trials have been postponed. Sporting events are being postponed or cancelled. And political events are being scrubbed.

“People should not be fearful or panicked, but they should respect this virus. It has the capability of harming people significantly. So we need to respect and do all the things that we would normally do for the influenza season,” said Dr. Theresa Brennan, the chief medical officer for University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, to most patients feels similar to the flu, but can have more dire health consequences for individuals who are older or already have serious health conditions like lung or heart disease or diabetes.

Of Iowa’s 18 cases of the virus, 17 are travel-related and 15 can be directly traced to an Egyptian cruise.

The most recent case, announced Saturday night by the state, is the first that is a result of community spread. In other words, unlike the previous cases, state public health officials cannot determine how the person contracted the virus.

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And while there are so few confirmed cases here, across the state preventative measures are being taken in an effort to slow the virus’ spread.

Public events typically attended by hundreds, if not thousands of people are particularly on the chopping block.

St. Patrick’s Day parades in Davenport and Cedar Rapids have been cancelled.

“I know this is disappointing … but I am sure you can appreciate that this decision is made for the health of all involved: parade participants and spectators,” Joe Dooley, president of the St. Patrick Society of the Quad-Cities, said in a statement.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division II national women’s basketball tournament, which was being held in Sioux City, was cancelled in the middle of the second day of games. The 32-team tournament had been scheduled to run through Tuesday.

Public education is in flux across Iowa thanks to coronavirus concerns.

Most colleges, including all three public universities, have shifted to online instruction in order to avoid gathering students in classrooms.

The state has not yet determined all K-through-12 schools should close, as have other states, although some of the state’s largest districts have reached that conclusion on their own.

Neighbor states Wisconsin, Illinois, and South Dakota on Friday announced their public school systems would close temporarily.

There remains no such state order in Iowa --- despite the presence of community spread --- but the Des Moines Public School District announced this week it would remain closed through the end of the month. And the Mason City district announced Friday it will extend its spring break until at least March 23.

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Some school districts, like in Sioux City and Waterloo, are cancelling all extracurricular activities for the time being.

“This initial short-term closure allows time for the local health officials to gain a better understanding of the COVID-19 situation impacting the school and to help the school determine appropriate next steps, including whether an extended dismissal duration is needed to stop or slow further spread of COVID-19,” the Mason City district said in a news release.

Justice delayed may be justice denied, but Iowans must deal with that for the time being. All criminal trials in the state have been postponed until April 20, and civil jury trials until May 4, according to an order from the Iowa Supreme Court.

Clerk of court offices throughout the state will remain open, the courts said.

“We are very concerned about balancing the need to keep our courthouses open with the safety of our jurors and everyone who uses Iowa courthouses,” Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen said in a statement. “We have heard concerns from judges, attorneys, and jurors about court procedures that require large groups of people to gather in the courthouse or a courtroom so we completed a comprehensive review of what other states have done in response to coronavirus/COVID-19. 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.”

Some Iowa political parties and candidates are altering their schedules due to coronavirus concerns.

The Iowa Democratic Party postponed its county conventions, scheduled for March 21.

Those conventions bring hundreds of Iowans together to continue election-year political party business that started with the February 3 presidential precinct caucuses.

“After extensive consultation with county chairs, the state central committee, party leaders, and public health officials, we have come to the determination that the spreading coronavirus poses a risk that outweighs a temporary delay in moving the caucus-to-convention process forward,” interim Democratic Party state chairman Mark Smith said in a news release. “This is not an easy decision, but we believe it is the right decision.”

But the Republican Party of Iowa forged ahead with its county conventions across the state on Saturday, just hours before Reynolds announced the presence of community spread in Iowa.

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Republican Party leaders, both in the state party and at the statehouse, said they were leaning on the advice of the state public health department. That’s why the Iowa Legislature remains in session, despite the Iowa Capitol hosting hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors each day.

The department on Saturday evening announced its recommendation that Iowans not host or attend gatherings of more than 250 people. Prior to Saturday evening and the discovery of community spread, the department had not made that recommendation.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Saturday she plans on Sunday to discuss the legislative session with leaders.

Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s longtime Republican U.S. senator, was more proactive.

Grassley cancelled town hall events that had been scheduled for this coming week in Iowa. He would have been forced to cancel them anyway because U.S. Senate leadership cancelled the chamber’s planned recess in order to remain in Washington, D.C., to address issues related to the coronavirus.

But Chuck Grassley’s office said his town hall events were cancelled due to coronavirus concerns.

Grassley’s town halls are well-known as a part of his annual 99-county public tour of the state. But those events often feature dozens of Iowans crammed into small spaces and 1-on-1 interactions with Grassley. Grassley is 86 years old, placing him at a heightened threat of experiencing more severe health issues were he to contract the coronavirus.

Grassley had meetings scheduled in Grundy Center, Hamilton, Kossuth, and Boone counties.

“Public health concerns and his work in the Senate prevent him from holding any county meetings next week,” Grassley spokesperson Michael Zona said.

Political candidates similarly face the decision of whether to continue to hold public events amid coronavirus concerns.

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For example, Eddie Mauro, one of the five Democrats running in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, cancelled multiple campaign events.

And an upcoming visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been cancelled. Pompeo had been scheduled to address the Christian conservative group The Family Leader at a March 21 event in Des Moines.

Organizer Bob Vander Plaats said he hopes Pompeo will be able to return to Iowa at another time to speak to the group.

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