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Iowa remains coronavirus hot spot in White House report

DES MOINES — Iowa remains in the “red zone” for spread of the coronavirus, according to the latest report from the White House.

Published Tuesday by the New York Times, the White House report also shows 61 Iowa counties are in “red” or “yellow” zones that indicate heightened virus activity. That number is up from 47 counties in the report two weeks ago. The federal government has dispatched 14 staff workers to Iowa to assist with “medical activities.”

On a conference call Tuesday with governors, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx listed Iowa as one of 13 states the task force is working with and encouraged those states to increase mitigation efforts now, according to a CNN report on the call.

“Because if we wait until increased hospitalizations, it is really way too late,” Birx told governors on the call. “Because what we are experiencing now is really different than March and April; it’s very different from the outbreaks of May that was typically contained. This widespread community spread (is) in the younger age group, both rural and very urban and urban areas, so by the time you see it up to 80% to 90% of your counties already have more than 10% (of cases that are positive).”

Statewide, Iowa’s coronavirus cases have surged back to near the state’s first peak in early May, according to state public health data. Virus-related deaths and hospitalizations also have been climbing, albeit more gradually.

The White House task force categorizes areas with new cases above 100 per 100,000 population and a positive test share above 10% as “red zones,” according to the report.

Areas with cases between 10 and 100 per 100,000 population and a positive test share between 5% and 10% are classified as yellow zones.

The report classified eight Iowa counties as red zones: Dubuque, Emmet, Franklin, Hardin, Lyon, Marshall, Montgomery and Wapello.

The report listed Dubuque, Marshalltown and Ottumwa as red-zone communities.

In red zones, the White House recommends bars and gyms be closed, restaurants limited to strict social distancing and face masks be required inside all businesses.

None of those mitigation strategies are in place in Iowa. Bars, gyms and restaurants are allowed to operate at full capacity, and while Gov. Kim Reynolds has encouraged Iowans to wear masks when social distancing is not possible, she has not required them.

The state public health department and governor’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the task force’s recommendations or the federal workers that reportedly were sent to Iowa.

According to state public health data, Iowa’s positive test share has been below 10% for most days since late May.

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 43,000 Iowans have contracted the virus and 845 Iowans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, since the pandemic first arrived here in late March.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 458 new cases on Wednesday and three new deaths. Black Hawk County reported 3,524 total cases as of Wednesday, up 11 from the previous day, while deaths remained unchanged at 62.


Govt-and-politics
alert featured
Waterloo sees early Park and 11th bridge plans

Plans to replace two Cedar River bridges are pitting a desire for flood improvements against negative impacts on nearby properties.

Engineering consultants Monday unveiled preliminary design options to replace the deteriorating Park Avenue and 11th Street bridges.

The city received a $12.5 million federal grant to pay for the project, which has an overall estimated cost of $20 million to $25 million. Stanley Consultants Inc. of Des Moines was hired under a $505,000 contract last fall to handle preliminary design.

City officials had hoped to raise both bridges enough to eliminate the need to install temporary gates and to keep them open to traffic when the Cedar reaches a severe flood stage.

“Ideally we would be able to eliminate those (gates) so the bridge could remain open,” said Tom Bower, project manager for Stanley Consultants. “But that does create some potential negatives that we don’t like so much.”

Bower noted raising the Park Avenue bridge enough to remove the flood gates would prevent a direct pedestrian connection to the RiverLoop Amphitheater, shut the Cedar Street intersection, and eliminate most driveway accesses between the river and Sycamore Street.

Consultants are instead recommending the bridge only be raised four feet, which would provide headroom for the bicycle trail running underneath and prevent cutting off all but one driveway access.

However, the firm is recommending the 11th Street bridge be elevated enough to eliminate the flood gates. The move would create a retaining wall cutting off some access to a bar and restaurant on the east side of the river and a business on the west side of the river.

“It’s a win for some people and a loss for others in that regard,” said City Engineer Jamie Knutson.

The Park Avenue bridge, built in 1938, and 11th Street bridge, built in 1953, were both four-lane crossings, although the Park Avenue span was reduced to two lanes of traffic several years ago based on structural concerns.

Stanley Consultants, in cooperation with city staff, have recommended the replacement bridges both have two lanes of vehicular traffic.

The Park Avenue bridge would have bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and scenic overlooks on both sides. The 11th Street bridge would have a bicycle lane, sidewalk, and overlooks only on the downstream side.

Another key decision discussed during a City Council work session was whether to have a barrier between the vehicle lanes and bicycle trails on the Park Avenue bridge.

Councilman Pat Morrissey said he believes that barrier was needed. But Knutson noted including the barrier could be a problem with some organizations’ desire to close the bridge and fill it with vendors and visitors during major downtown events.

The federal grant requires the city to replace both bridges with similar designs and have a bid letting by September 2021. The consultants hope to have a final design determined by next spring following a public information meeting.

Both bridges could be replaced at one time in 2022. But the city could choose to replace one bridge in 2023.

Stanley Consultants has a website set up for the project — waterloobridgesproject.com — where residents can learn more about the history of the bridges, vote on design themes, and see renderings of the design elements.

Preliminary renderings of the Park Avenue and 11th Street bridges:

Park Avenue and 11th Street bridge replacement renderings

Education
Regents OK cuts to universities, presidential compensation

In lopping over $65 million from Iowa’s public universities in fiscal 2021 to help account for losses from COVID-19, state funding cuts and enrollment declines, the state Board of Regents on Wednesday praised campus administrators for making sacrifices.

Acting to take account of the losses — which projected a $53 million drop in tuition income alone — regents approved pared-down general operating fund budgets of nearly $728 million for the University of Iowa, $630 million for Iowa State University and $170 million for the University of Northern Iowa. That doesn’t include the UI Hospitals and Clinics.

Regents praised the campus leaders for sharing in the losses by cutting their compensation.

“I have been personally very impressed by our institutional leadership agreeing to take pay reductions to help with the economic challenges our schools are facing,” said board President Mike Richards.

The universities, which have announced plans to return students to campus this fall with a combination of in-person and online courses, nonetheless face more financial uncertainties as the pandemic persists.

The board approved the following compensation changes for the presidents of its universities:

  • University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld will take a 50-percent cut to his $590,000 base pay for the rest of the budget year, a one-time savings of $270,416;
  • Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen will take a one-year 10-percent cut to her $590,000 base pay, amounting to $59,000;
  • And University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook will shave $42,110 from his $357,110 base pay through the end of the budget year — while also cutting his annual deferred compensation payments from $100,000 to $50,000 through June 30, 2022.

Harreld and Wintersteen also have deferred compensation plans scheduled through 2023 — paying out $2.33 million to Harreld and more than $1 million to Wintersteen. They have not announced making changes to those plans.

The board also Wednesday agreed to establish a new deferred compensation plan for its executive director, Mark Braun, that makes annual contributions of $145,000 through June 30, 2022. Richards noted Braun voluntarily took a 16.5% pay cut.

Administrators across the campus’ athletics departments also have taken pay cuts — including high-profile football, basketball and wrestling coaches Kirk Ferentz, Fran McCaffery, Lisa Bluder and Tom Brands at the UI.

Budget reductions have translated to faculty and staff furloughs, pay cuts, lost raises and hiring freezes across the campuses. They’ve halted construction and consolidated programs.


Local
breaking
Tyson greatly expands COVID-19 testing

SIOUX CITY — Tyson Foods will launch weekly coronavirus testing of workers after outbreaks sickened thousands of employees and idled production at several meat plants this spring.

The company also will hire nearly 200 nurses and administrative support personnel to bolster Tyson’s 400-person health services team.

The nurses will conduct the on-site tests and assist with case management, coordinating treatment for employees who contract the disease.

Tyson also will create a chief medical officer position at the corporate level.

Four company representatives shared details of the new monitoring initiative during a Zoom meeting Wednesday.

“This is a very proactive way for us to do our best to stay ahead of this virus, rather than what we’ve experienced in the recent past,” Hector Gonzalez, Tyson’s senior vice president for human resources, said.

Early in the pandemic, meatpackers nationwide struggled to contain the virus in plants where workers toil side by side on production lines and often share crowded locker rooms, cafeterias and rides to work.

Tyson has tested around 40,000 workers, or nearly one-third of its workforce. Of its 122,000 employees, less than 1 percent, or about 1,200, are active COVID-19 cases, according to the company.

The company conducted mass testing at several plants where large-scale outbreaks occurred. That included in Waterloo, where Tyson’s pork processing facility closed April 22 amid an outbreak that infected more than 1,000 workers.

Its flagship beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, just across the border from Sioux City, shut down in early May after nearly 790 of the 4,500 workers tested positive for the virus. Tyson temporarily idled several other plants, including pork facilities in Storm Lake, Columbus Junction, Perry and Madison, Nebraska, after hundreds of workers were infected.

The company now will test thousands of workers each week across all of its 140 facilities.

“That will be ongoing all the time,” said Scott Brooks, senior vice president, who leads the company’s testing efforts.

“As we expand this, we’re going to be touching even those facilities where we don’t know if we have any cases,” he said. “So it’s going to be a significant expansion.”

Workers with no symptoms may be tested through an algorithm-based process based on scientific data. The number tested each week will be adjusted based on factors such as the number of cases involving plant workers and in the community.

Other information also will factor in, said Dr. Daniel Castillo, chief medical officer for Matrix Medical, a private clinic services company Tyson retained to conduct on-site screenings.

“There are some people, because of their nature of the work, who might interact more with others. So that data would trigger that algorithm to identify those folks to be tested perhaps more often,” Castillo said.

Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union representing Tyson hourly workers, urged other industry employers to follow Tyson’s lead and “take immediate action to expand COVID monitoring as we work to flatten the curve.

“Together, we will continue to look for new and better ways to protect the health and safety of the brave front-line workers who are so important to the nation’s food production system,” Perrone said in news release from Tyson.

Tyson officials had already expanded monitoring and increased health staff since the pandemic struck.

Workers have their temperatures taken daily by infrared scanners at plant entrances and are required to wear facial coverings.

More than 500 social distance monitors have been installed in plants to track social distancing efforts and ensure personal protective equipment is worn properly.

Workers who test positive receive paid leave and may return to work only after they meet criteria established by Tyson and the Centers for Disease Control.