The COVID-19 pandemic has tested Iowa in many ways, some expected and others unexpected. While it may seem that the social distancing and isolation will never end, it will someday end and Iowans will again come out of our homes, talk with our neighbors, and attend community gatherings again.
In the meantime, we need to respect the importance of the social distance and treat the threat that is COVID-19 very seriously. The better we do at social distancing, the less burdensome this virus will be on our health (lives), our health care system (hospital capacity) and the economy (the faster we get back to work).
While the Legislature is suspended right now, here are five additional things the governor should do right away to deal with the pandemic in Iowa:
• Stay Home: Iowans need to know to stay home. The number of positive cases in Iowa has doubled in just four days and new models released by the White House yesterday show COVID deaths nationally reaching 100,000, on the low side, that’s 1 out of every 3,200 Americans. Iowa currently has a D in social distancing from a group that analyzes global positioning data from cellphones. While most Iowans are already following social distancing recommendations, we need a clear directive from the Governor immediately to shelter in place. Using the words “shelter in place” will increase compliance with social distancing, eliminate confusion, and “flatten the curve” of the outbreak. The order would need to exempt essential services, such as food, health care, and manufacturers producing essential materials.
• Testing: While testing has increased in recent days, testing for the COVID-19 virus in Iowa still falls well short of what is needed with just 0.2 percent of our population tested. We need more testing that first covers the health care workers on the front lines and then robust testing for those with symptoms and those exposed. Widespread testing also will be the key to getting Iowans back to work and life back to normal without another outbreak. Given the delays and lack of preparation at the national level that has caused the testing shortage, we need to quickly develop our own tests and build capacity to process those in minutes. We’ve got experts in the public and private sector who can help make that happen with a good plan.
• Support Workers: Workers in both the public and private sector are struggling to not just keep their own family safe and healthy, but live with constant economic insecurity. With unemployment claims skyrocketing, there’s more we must do to help workers and their families weather this crisis. On Monday, the Governor changed course and no longer required employees laid off due to COVID-19 to use their vacation and sick time benefits before being eligible for unemployment benefits. It was the right move, but there were well over 40,000 Iowans left out because they filed before it was changed. I urge the Governor to make it retroactive immediately.
• Fair Treatment for Workers: In the public sector, many front line workers in prisons, health care facilities, and public safety facilities are facing a myriad of new rules and hurdles designed to combat COVID-19 without the tools and precautions to do their job right. The Governor needs to make a uniform COVID-19 policy so all workers are treated fairly and protect workers.
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• Small Businesses: In just over a week, over 7,500 Iowa small businesses applied for the Iowa Small Business Relief Fund. That huge number not only shows the impact COVID-19 is having on our economy, but shows we need to add more money to the program. The Governor should dedicate more resources to the fund, open it back up for applications, and expand the program to include sole proprietorships, self-employed Iowans, and other businesses with just one employee.
When the Legislature reconvenes later this year to finish session, we need to fix some of the deep structural problems the pandemic has exposed. Small businesses need just as much support from economic development officials as large businesses. Paid time off and support for workers is essential. Hospitals need adequate and reliable funding to save lives in a crisis. We have to fix our skilled health care worker shortage. We need more first responders in rural areas. Every Iowan deserves access to affordable health care. Iowa schools are the heart of our communities and the investment is worth it.
In times of crisis, Iowans always come together and take care of each other. As state leaders, our job is to not only act swiftly in a crisis, but to learn from it, fix problems, and be prepared for the next one.
Todd Prichard represents District 52 in the Iowa House and serves as House Minority Leader.