COVID-19 cases spike as state increases testing and prepares to re-open

By: 
Travis Fischer

An increase in testing shows cases of COVID-19 continuing to spread across Iowa as the state prepares to relax some of its emergency social distancing restrictions.

The rate of infection from the novel coronavirus has grown at a near exponential rate since March, resulting in Governor Kim Reynolds declaring a state of emergency on March 17, limiting social gatherings and closing most non-essential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease.

While the bulk of these closures remain in effect through May 15, the governor has begun the process of easing back on restrictions in select areas.

"The reality is that we can't stop the virus. It will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available," said Reynolds on Monday, April 27. "Instead we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives."

As of Sunday, May 3, there have been 9,169 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, increasing the 5,474 total from the week prior by 67%. This means that one third of all of Iowa's COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic were found in that seven day period.

An additional 66 deaths last week were also attributed to the virus, bringing the total death count to 184. Of the fatal cases, 86 have been elderly (age 80+), 72 have been older adults (60-80), 22 have been middle aged (40-60), and four have been young adults (20-40).

Long term care facilities continue to be a highly vulnerable target for the virus. The number of cases reported in long term care facilities spiked over the week, with 11 new outbreaks confirmed, bringing the total to 27 infected facilities. There are now 882 reported cases of COVID-19 among long term care residents and staff, accounting for about 9% of the state's total cases.

Testing is expected to continue to ramp up as the state rolls out their TestIowa program, which establishes sites Iowans can use to schedule a drive-through test at various locations around the state. The first site opened in Des Moines last weekend, with a second site opening in Waterloo last Wednesday.

Additional sites are being planned for counties like Woodbury County, which stands out as western Iowa's epicenter for COVID-19 activity.

Iowans are encouraged to take the online assessment at TestIowa.com to see if they qualify for a test, at which point they will be given a barcode and an appointment time and place. Right now testing is being prioritized to essential workers, people that have symptoms, people that have been in contact with somebody with COVID-19, or people in an area with a heavy infection rate.

Those that do not qualify for a test through TestIowa are encouraged to consult with their doctor instead.

Statewide, 53,186 Iowans have been tested with about 17% of those testing positive. In total, 448 elderly, 1,305 older adults, 3,487 middle aged adults, 3,751 adults, and 174 children have tested positive for the disease. Approximately 20% of those infected become severely ill, particularly among the old and elderly.

The vast majority of these cases have been reported from the 22 counties that remain fully under the effects of the Governor's emergency proclamations. While the effects of the outbreak have been severe in Linn County, which has seen a quarter of the state's COVID-19 related fatalities, there are still other parts of Iowa that have yet to report a single case.

This disparity in geographical spread has motivated Governor Reynolds to begin lifting some of the social distancing restrictions imposed to certain businesses under her emergency proclamations. With an increase in testing capability, Reynolds hopes to be able to target outbreaks more precisely so that a low population county with little virus activity does not have to deal with the same restrictions that a high population county dealing with an outbreak does.

"They've been shut down based on statewide numbers," said Reynolds. "The more that we're able to drill down and really target and be specific about where we're seeing the outbreaks, it allows our communities to open up."

As of Friday, May 1, restaurants, farmers markets, fitness centers, retail stores, and libraries have been allowed to resume limited operations in 77 of the counties where COVID-19 spread has been limited or stable.

Restaurants that decide to re-open will be limited to 50% of their building's capacity, can seat no more than six people per table, must space tables six feet apart, and cannot have self-serving options such as fountain drinks or salad bars.

In addition, the Iowa Department of Public Health has also recommended that restaurants utilize a reservation only system, screen customers on arrival, screen employees at the start of their shift, have public facing employees wear masks, and spread out workstations wherever possible.

Farmers markets are under similar restrictions, mandating six feet between vendors and discouraging groups from lingering. It is also recommended that vendors consider cashless options if possible to avoid exchanging paper currency.

For general retail stores, the state is recommending that stores follow CDC cleaning guidelines and offer hand sanitizer for both employees and public use. Social distancing marks to guide people into staying apart from each other are also recommended.

Reynolds was unclear if or how these restrictions would be enforced. When asked during her Tuesday press conference she said she had confidence that Iowa business owners would do the right thing.

"They want to make sure that they put all the measures in place, not only to protect their employees but to protect their patrons as well as their community," said Reynolds.

While Reynolds has continually advised Iowans to be responsible for their own wellbeing in regards to social distancing, the re-opening of businesses will leave laid-off workers with few options. Employees that do not feel it is safe to return to work, either for their own health or because they live with somebody at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, will be left to work out the matter with their employer.

"We've asked employers to take a look, if you have a vulnerable person in your household, to make all reasonable opportunities for the employee to be isolated from the rest of the workforce," said Reynolds.

Those that do not return to work when called back will lose their unemployment benefits outside of certain exceptions. Those that have tested positive for COVID-19, share a household with somebody that has tested positive for COVID-19, or have been recommended by a doctor that they quarantine, can continue to receive benefits. Parents unable to find childcare due to COVID-19 can also continue to receive benefits at this time.

Outside of lifting some of the business restrictions, Reynolds has lifted the ban on religious gatherings across the state. While most social gatherings are still limited to ten or fewer people, religious services, including weddings and funerals, will no longer be subject to that cap. However, this does not apply to visitations or wedding receptions.

While the governor is eager to start lifting additional restrictions on businesses in the state, the reverse is still an option as the virus continues to spread unchecked. Counties that see an increase in activity may see restrictions re-asserted instead.

"If we do see an up-tick and see those numbers start to spike, then we might have to take a look at dialing back," said Reynolds.

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