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Iowa governor insists on state control of in-school learning

DES MOINES — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday insisted the state controls how public schools will resume classes next month, saying districts can provide online learning only if coronavirus cases are surging in their communities.

The teachers union immediately pushed back against her demand that schools seek the state’s permission to send children home, saying the lives of children and teachers are at stake and that science not politics should guide decisions.

On July 17, Reynolds said the state will require at least half of classes to be held in person and Thursday she updated that guidance to say the state will decide when K-12 schools can send students home based on community virus spread and student illnesses.

Reynolds’ new requirements came on a day when the state reported 15 more deaths and 582 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The rate of hospitalizations and patients in intensive care also are increasing.

“COVID-19 poses low risk to school-age children based on low transmission in the community. Children are not driving the pandemic and transmission from students to students and teachers have been low,” Reynolds said at a news conference in the state Capitol. “With proper tools and resources, we can reopen safely protecting students, teachers, staff and families.”

Reynolds’ rules for school makes exceptions for parents who can choose to keep a child at home for remote learning, and districts must make accommodations for any student to learn remotely if they, a caregiver, or a person they live with has a health condition that would increase their risk of COVID-19.

Although some school districts previously said they would seek waivers to the state Education Department’s mandates, guidelines outlined by Reynolds would allow exceptions only if counties have coronavirus positivity rates of 15% to 20% over a two week period, and at least 10% of students absent. If granted, such waivers for remote-only learning would expire after 14 days.

If community transmission is worse than a 20% positivity rate over a two-week period, districts also could seek to send students home for virtual learning.

Reynolds, a Republican, is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, who has insisted students return to classes even as case numbers soar nationwide. She noted that the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that counties with less than a 10% positivity rate should reopen and 93 of Iowa’s 100 counties meet that threshold.

The districts in the seven counties with higher rates can apply beginning next week to start the year with at least partial at-home learning for two weeks.

On Wednesday, members of the state teachers union called on Reynolds to rescind her proclamation and establish a rule that “places the health and safety of our students, educators school employees and communities ahead of politics.”

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said more than 36,000 people have signed a petition that will be mailed to Reynolds asking for local decision control.

“Most importantly we are not just talking about numbers as we look at this decision. We are talking about children’s lives and the lives of the educators, school employees and the families who are affected,” he said.

Reynolds continues to refuse to impose a mask mandate in Iowa, and the Department of Education has recommended against districts requiring them in schools. Local officials in some cities and counties have moved to enact their own despite Reynolds’ saying they cannot enforce it without her authority.

She said some states that imposed mask requirements after virus surges have not seen cases fall.

“It’s just there’s not a silver bullet. There’s not a single answer,” she said.

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Reynolds defends lack of mask mandate

DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday said while scientists say face masks slow the spread of coronavirus, some people “would tell you just the opposite.”

Reynolds made the comment as she defended her decision not to mandate all Iowans wear face masks in public.

When a reporter noted scientists agree face masks work to slow the spread of the virus, Reynolds responded, “But there’s people that would tell you just the opposite.”

Public health and infectious disease experts are in near unanimous agreement that face coverings are effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, a fact verified by multiple studies.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend individuals wear face masks in public. Iowa’s public health department also recommends face masks for Iowans when they are unable to remain at least six feet away from others.

“Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting,” federal CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said recently.

On Wednesday, 300 Iowa doctors signed a letter urging Reynolds to issue a statewide mask mandate. On Thursday, the Iowa chapter of the American College of Physicians sent a statement to the governor calling for masks to be worn in community settings. Black Hawk County Health Department director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye was among the signatories.

Face masks are required in public or for certain workers in 42 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors federal and states’ health care policy. Iowa is not among them.

Reynolds has consistently promoted state public health department guidance that Iowans should wear face masks when they are in public and come within six feet of other people. Her administration recently started a public campaign urging Iowans to wear masks, and she reiterated the recommendation Thursday.

But Reynolds has stopped requiring face masks in public. She says a mandate would be difficult to enforce and suggested some states with mask mandates have still seen increases in coronavirus cases.

However, a study published in June determined U.S. states that have mandated the use of face masks experienced a greater decline in daily coronavirus cases compared with states without a mandate.

And a CDC study found a mask mandate was “likely a contributing factor” in preventing spread of the virus in a Missouri hair salon where two stylists were infected with the virus but did not transmit it to any of their customers.

Reynolds said Thursday she believes most Iowans are wearing face masks in public, even without a mandate.

“All along we’ve said if you can’t social distance, wear a mask. We know that those are two things that can help slow the spread and have an impact on COVID-19 in our state. I believe that Iowans are doing the right thing, and I’m doing it through a PR campaign,” Reynolds said. “There’s not a silver bullet. There’s not a single answer.”

Statewide, Iowa’s coronavirus cases have surged back to near the state’s May peak. Deaths and hospitalizations also have been climbing, albeit more gradually than cases.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 44,000 Iowans had contracted the virus and 857 Iowans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, since the pandemic first arrived in early March.

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What is a coronavirus contact tracer, and why does Black Hawk Co. want to do it? (copy)


WATERLOO — In late April, as coronavirus infections were climbing steeply due mainly to an outbreak at the Tyson plant in Waterloo, the Black Hawk County Health Department found itself overmatched.

With cases reaching 140 per day or more, and without the staff needed to keep up with contact tracing locally, County Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye felt she had no choice but to turn the job over to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“In April, we were very much in a difficult position,” Egbuonye said. “We had to give that role up to the state.”

But she said state tracers often don’t pass information on to county officials in a timely manner, defeating the purpose of tracing, which is to quickly notify people who may be spreading disease.

As new cases of coronavirus have moderated to an average of 30 to 40 per day in Black Hawk County, Egbuonye is looking to bring contact tracing back under her department’s control.

To do that, she and Joshua Pikora, county disease surveillance and investigation manager, are asking the county for a full-time epidemiologist and a number of temporary full- and part-time contact tracers.

The Black Hawk County Board of Health registered its unanimous approval of the new positions Wednesday. The positions will be discussed at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, director of the Black Hawk County Health Department.

“With the University (of Northern Iowa) reopening, and K-12 schools, we really need to build that infrastructure so we’re not reactionary,” Egbuonye said.

Contact tracers track the close contacts of a person with a communicable disease and warn them they may be infected.

Before coronavirus, the Black Hawk County Health Department used its six investigators and three support staff to track down people diagnosed with everything from vaccine-preventable diseases like measles to sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and even food-borne illnesses like salmonella.

Tracers gather names of those who may have been exposed to warn them they should be tested.

“This is done by quickly identifying and informing people that they may be infected and are contagious, so they may prevent the spread,” Egbuonye said.

“Quickly” is the operative word, particularly with a virus like COVID-19, which spreads easily via respiratory droplets from talking, coughing and sneezing.

Tracers try to contact each possible exposed person and get them tested as soon as possible to prevent more exposure.

“This is why, right now, it’s so critical for us to have the resources and personnel,” she said.

Since late April, the county has only traced cases in long-term care facilities, Pikora told the Board of Health on Wednesday.

It relies on the state for all other information — cases that occur together, workplace exposures and more. But the county doesn’t get all the data it wants, and doesn’t have control over what gets collected in the first place.

“Really, the importance of the information gathered during those case investigations — going through exposures, figuring out symptom history — can’t be overstated,” Pikora said.

As area schools, colleges and the University of Northern Iowa bring students back to class, Pikora worries cases could balloon, but county health officials won’t know when or where if IDPH continues to take the lead on tracing.

“The knowledge of our community, the connections to our community, means we have a better understanding of what trends mean locally,” he said.

Plus, Egbuonye pointed out, the county is much more likely to recruit tracers who speak languages spoken here — Burmese, French or Marshallese, for example.

“For disease investigation, a critical role is being able to effectively communicate and do the interview,” she said.

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Iowa cracking down on social distancing in bars, restaurants

DES MOINES — State officials will issue fines and license suspensions to enforce social distancing requirements in bars and restaurants, a pair of state agencies announced Thursday.

Under Iowa’s state public health emergency declaration, bars and restaurants can open without capacity restrictions, but must employ social distancing measures. Businesses are required to create at least 6 feet of physical distance between each group or individual dining alone, and all patrons must be seated and cannot gather closer than six feet.

The state agencies that regulate bars and restaurants said they plan to work together to enforce those social distancing requirements, according to a news release.

For first offenses, businesses with an alcohol license will be fined $1,000 by the state Alcoholic Beverages Division, and restaurants will be issued a warning by the state Department of Inspections and Appeals.

A second offense will result in a seven-day suspension of an alcohol or food license; a third offense will result in the business losing that license.

“Public safety is of the utmost importance. Although a majority of bars and restaurants are voluntarily complying with social distancing requirements, we will take these necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of Iowans,” Inspections and Appeals director Larry Johnson said.

A statement from the Iowa Restaurant Association suggested just a small number of restaurants and bars are not adhering to social distancing requirements.

“The vast majority of Iowa’s hospitality establishments are strictly adhering to the mitigation and social distancing mandates addressed in the governor’s most recent proclamation,” Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said in a news release. “Our industry simply can’t take the economic devastation of another across-the-board shut down of on-premise service, additional limitations on alcohol service hours, or patron capacity reductions because a few establishments are unwilling to operate within current requirements. We appreciate that today’s announced policy will not penalize the entire industry when it is just a few unwilling to comply.”

The latest report from the White House pandemic response task force says Iowa as a whole and eight of the state’s counties are “red zones,” indicating a high rate of spread of the coronavirus. In those areas, the task force recommends bars and gyms be closed, restaurants be limited to strict social distancing, and face masks be required inside all businesses.

Iowa does not have a face mask mandate, and bars and gyms are still open.

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

As of Thursday morning, more than 43,730 Iowans have contracted the virus and 854 Iowans have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic arrived in late March.