Staff Editorial

What it would take to reopen Iowa

The most important thing to know about reopening Iowa is that we are not nearly ready.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Em
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

Gov. Kim Reynolds has spoken repeatedly in the past two weeks about plans to reopen Iowa from the coronavirus shutdown.

Iowans’ desire to get “back to normal” is understandable. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdown of everyday activities is ravaging our economy, our health and our social lives.

Nevertheless, our government leaders must be realistic about plans to lift restrictions and roll back social distancing recommendations. Easing up too soon would negate the progress we have made in slowing the spread of the virus.

At a news conference last week, Reynolds announced the first measures to “reopen” Iowa — easing restrictions on elective medical procedures and farmers markets. More reopening announcements will come this week, she said.

At the very same news conference, Reynolds announced Iowa’s highest daily totals yet for positive tests and deaths.

Testing capacity still is growing and a statewide epidemiological model is under development, both of which will start to give citizens and policymakers a clearer view of the epidemic’s scope in Iowa.

Last week, two hallmarks of summer in Eastern Iowa — the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival and the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — canceled their upcoming events. Organizers are not eager to tear up the plans they have been working on for months, but they understand this crisis is overwhelmingly likely to continue for several months.

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The most important thing to know about reopening Iowa is that we are not nearly ready. As we look forward to that possibility, there are a few factors Iowans can monitor to gauge progress.

• Reliable data and forecasts

A responsible plan to lift emergency restrictions in Iowa can’t be developed right now because the state doesn’t have a legitimate pandemic model to track the disease.

What do all these ‘metrics’ and ‘data’ actually mean?

For now, Iowa is relying on a simple matrix, which has been widely criticized for only measuring past outcomes, and not taking into account expected conditions. In short, Reynolds’ metrics are a barometer rather than a true forecast.

It wasn’t until this month that the Iowa Department of Public Health reached an agreement with the University of Iowa College of Public Health to develop a COVID-19 model. That delay was a grave error that hampered Iowa’s ability to stay ahead of the virus outbreak.

When the model is finally delivered to the governor’s office, it should promptly be made public. Taxpayers are funding the work, and we deserve full access to the data authorities are using to make decisions.

Honesty and transparency from the governor will help Iowans grasp the reality of the situation.

• More testing capacity

In the near term, we need more tests because we don’t know where or how fast COVID-19 is spreading. Right now, Iowa’s testing strategy is reactive, capturing only people with severe symptoms, known exposure or high risk factors. Recently, as many as 25 percent of Iowa’s daily tests are coming back positive, which suggests many infections are going undetected.

Last week, Reynolds announced a public-private partnership she expects will increase testing capacity by 3,000 tests per week. Utah has a similar program and, as of last week, ranks sixth in the nation for COVID-19 tests conducted per capita, according to Vox.

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There are lingering concerns about data privacy and oversight related to the state partnering with private companies, meaning Iowans should closely scrutinize the program.

Moving forward, Iowa will need general testing, available to people without symptoms or known exposure. Priority should initially be given to essential workers, and eventually to more workers as the state reopens certain industries.

• Slow and gradual plan

Reopening Iowa will not happen all at once. There will not be one day we can all go out to the bars and hug each other. To be effective, it will have to be a slow and gradual process.

Even the Trump administration — which has been dangerously bullish about the prospects of resuming business in the near future recognizes the need to ease into it. The White House’s “Opening Up America” plan offers a graduated approach, with certain activities allowed before others.

As Reynolds said when she was rolling out COVID-19 restrictions, it’s a dial, not a light switch. Reopening measures must come slowly, and be targeted at low-risk spots.

When business and social gatherings do resume, many of the precautions we have adopted in recent weeks will endure. We will have limited capacities and social distancing guidelines. There still will be face coverings, handshakes still will be shunned. Regular hand washing now is part of your life, forever.

The reality is we are not getting “back to normal” any time soon.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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