CORONAVIRUS

What Iowa coronavirus numbers should you watch?

The totals reveal positive trends, but also warning signs

A sign is posted at the Test Iowa coronavirus testing site May 28 at the Kirkwood Community College campus. While trends
A sign is posted at the Test Iowa coronavirus testing site May 28 at the Kirkwood Community College campus. While trends in testing are important, public health officials say a better measure of the coronavirus’ community spread is found in a state’s Rt value and seven-day averages of the number of hospitalizations and deaths. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Some of the most critical data on the coronavirus have been trending downward in Iowa in past week, but warning signs remain.

For more than two months in Iowa, the most critical COVID-19 figures — deaths and hospitalizations — have been steadily decreasing.

The number of new cases and new hospitalizations both increased late this week, including in Linn and Johnson counties, although those could be temporary two-day bumps during the larger downward trend.

More notably, the rate of the virus’ spread has been increasing slowly since the beginning of May, when Iowa businesses started to reopen.

Rt factor

A state’s “Rt” value is the effective reproduction rate of the coronavirus. Values over 1.0 mean more cases can be expected; values under 1.0 mean fewer cases can be expected.

As of Friday afternoon, Iowa’s Rt was at 0.96, just on the good side of the line, according to the website Rt.live. But that number has been steadily increasing since it bottomed out at 0.78 on May 4.

Exactly one week earlier, on April 27, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued the first round of proclamations that began relaxing coronavirus restrictions in place since mid-March. That first order allowed many businesses, including restaurants, malls and libraries, to reopen, at 50 percent capacity, in 77 of the state’s 99 counties.

Since then, more businesses have been allowed to reopen, and the state’s Rt has steadily increased.

The current trajectory would put it above 1.0, possibly later this month or early July.

Other states, including Florida, are seeing case spikes and Rt rates well above 1.0.

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That has not happened in Iowa, at least not yet, and Reynolds this week said she is confident the state’s reopening will not be disrupted by the virus.

“We’re just going to do like we do every day. We’re going to continue to manage and do everything that we can to contain the virus,” Reynolds said.

Death by race

While Black and Latino Iowans have been burdened with an outsized share of coronavirus cases, the share of virus-related deaths have been more in line with their populations.

Among Iowa’s population, 6 percent are Latino and 4 percent are Black. In the state, 27 percent of cases have been among Latinos and 10 percent among black Iowans. Those outsized percentages are, in part, because those groups are more likely to work in hourly, at-risk jobs in meatpacking plants, nursing homes, grocery stores and other essential businesses.

Among Iowans who have died of virus-related causes — 680 as of Friday — 7 percent have been Latino and 5 percent have been black.

Underlying health

A more critical factor in a person’s ability to survive COVID-19 is their underlying health.

As of Friday, seven out of every 10 Iowans who have died had preexisting health conditions, according to state public health data.

Only 6 percent of the deaths represented people with no preexisting health condition.

For the remaining 24 percent of deaths, it has not yet been determined if the individual had a previous health condition.

7-day averages

As of Friday afternoon, according to state public health data:

• The seven-day average of new deaths — 5.4 per day — was at its lowest since April 25. That figure peaked on May 25 at 15.0 and has been falling steadily since then.

• The seven-day average of Iowans hospitalized by the virus — 193.4 — was at its lowest since April 21. That figure peaked May 11 at 407.7 and has been falling steadily.

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* The seven-day average of Iowans newly admitted to the hospital for virus-related symptoms — 19.4 — was as low as it was April 17. That figure peaked May 5 at 41.1 and has been falling steadily.

The seven-day averages, state public health officials say, provide a more complete view of the virus’ activity Because single-day figures can sometimes be outliers and thus misleading.

The number of positive cases can be influenced by multiple factors, including the amount of testing taking place. Officials believe deaths and hospitalizations provide a better measurement of the virus’ activity and impact.

Iowa’s death rate — 22 deaths per 100,000 residents — is 20th in the nation, according to multiple sites that track that data.

Comments: (563) 383-2492; erin.murphy@lee.net

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.