DES MOINES — Standing on steps at the state Capitol, socially distanced and wearing white lab coats and face masks, roughly two dozen medical and public health professionals Saturday reiterated their call for Gov. Kim Reynolds to require Iowans to wear face masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Iowa is on the cusp of catastrophe. And we need to do everything we can do now to fight this pandemic before it turns even worse,” said Dr. Austin Baeth, an internal medicine specialist at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines.
The group held the news conference to draw attention to a letter — signed by more than 300 medical professionals in Iowa, including leaders of 16 Iowa health care organizations — they sent last week to Reynolds, imploring her to require Iowans wear face masks in public.
Public health and infectious disease experts are in near unanimous agreement, and multiple studies have verified face coverings slow the spread of the coronavirus. 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 when people are unable to remain at least six feet away from others in public, and Reynolds has organized a public information campaign encouraging Iowans to wear masks in public.
But Reynolds has resisted a mask mandate, in part because she said it would be difficult to enforce. She said Thursday when asked why she will not issue a mandate, “But there’s people that would tell you just the opposite.”
Those people were not at the Iowa Capitol on Saturday morning.
“The scientific evidence is now convincing: face masks work,” Baeth said. “There is science behind our recommendations. This is not politics. In fact, in my opinion there should be no room for politics when we’re discussing how to beat this disease.”
Baeth addressed the pushback from some who claim a mandate would violate personal freedoms. He noted research shows the virus can be spread by people who are infected but do not know it.
He compared a mask mandate to impaired driving laws, in that they instruct a person how to behave in public in order to protect other people’s lives.
“We acknowledge concerns that a mask mandate might appear to be in opposition of the personal freedoms enjoyed by Iowans,” Baeth said. “We contend, however, that due to the unfortunate prevalence of asymptomatic viral transmission, individuals who choose not to wear a mask endanger the personal freedoms of others. They do so by imperiling their life.”
Face masks are required in public or for some workers in 42 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors health care policy.
As of Saturday morning, nearly 45,000 Iowans had contracted the coronavirus, and 872 Iowans have died.
“For (wearing face masks) to work, we need for everyone to adhere to it,” said Dr. Rossana Rosa, an infectious diseases physician at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines. “And a mandate from the governor is the most expedient way for us to get to that goal.”
WATERLOO — Reopening guidelines issued by the Black Hawk County health department are helping Cedar Valley schools formulate plans for classes this fall.
The eight-page document recommends such measures as daily screening and monitoring of all staff, everyone wearing face coverings in school when feasible, and maintaining six feet of social distancing where possible. Among the recommendations to accomplish social distancing are using additional spaces in schools to spread out classes and staggering schedules to reduce the number of people in common areas at one time.
School leaders across the county have embraced the guidance as they prepare to bring students back while taking precautions against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“We found it very helpful. We appreciated the more detailed information that was in the Black Hawk County health plan,” said Jane Lindaman, superintendent of Waterloo Community Schools.
“They are kind of what we expected,” Tony Voss, superintendent of Hudson Community Schools, said of the guidance. He noted the guidelines were important in putting together the district’s mitigation plans.
Public school superintendents are collaborating as they work on implementation of the guidance in their systems. “A Cedar Valley approach is really best for families,” said Lindaman.
“I think it’s a good thing that the Black Hawk County superintendents have joined forces on this,” said Travis Fleshner, superintendent of Union Community Schools in La Porte City. “I think we’re just looking for some general consistencies.”
Andy Pattee, superintendent of Cedar Falls Community Schools, said meeting the social distancing guidelines is “something we’re always going to strive for.” And masks will be in the equation “when you can’t social distance.”
“The biggest issue that everybody’s dealing with is ‘What are you doing with face masks?’” said Tim Cronin, superintendent of Dunkerton Community Schools.
“We’ll have face masks and face shields for staff, and we’ve ordered 2,000 disposable masks for students,” he added, noting more would be ordered as the supply is used. “That’s something that we’ll put on a list for children to bring. Potentially, 2,000 masks will go pretty quick.”
Tom Novotney, Cedar Valley Catholic Schools’ chief administrator, said the Waterloo-based school system is similarly providing masks.
“The guidance in the Black Hawk County health department (document) was really clear,” he noted. “We will provide masks for students and staff at the time we can’t meet that six foot social distancing.”
Most of the school systems contacted by The Courier said they will require masks at least when social distancing is not possible. Along with Dunkerton and CVCS, that includes the Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Hudson community school districts.
“Our language right now is ‘highly recommended,’” said Fleshner, of Union Schools. The Waterloo and Cedar Falls school districts have said they will provide masks, although Cedar Falls is encouraging students to bring their own if they have them.
Some school officials also emphasized that schedules will be staggered to limit the number of people in common areas at one time.
“Some of our daily routines within a face-to-face or hybrid model will look different,” said Pattee, passing time and lunch time among them. Cedar Falls Schools is “looking to have less congestion, less contact between students and adults” during the day.
Dunkerton will make some modifications to its secondary school schedules to limit student contact on a daily basis. “Rather than switching each period, we’re going to look in Dunkerton at having block scheduling,” said Cronin. Students would alternate between classes, going twice as long to some one week and to others the next week.
Lindaman said Waterloo Schools will work to limit contacts between people at buildings in a number of ways.
“We will stagger the first days (of classes) for various grades,” she explained, at the elementary and middle schools. “We’re still hammering out the first days for high school.”
In addition, the district has ordered desk shields that students will use particularly in self-contained elementary classrooms. At the secondary level, the district will strive to “minimize the number of transitions that they have” moving from class-to-class. In the case of high schools, “we’re going to have to employ a little different strategy.”
That could include a hybrid approach, with students split between learning at home and in school on a given day. All of the school systems The Courier surveyed had developed options for a hybrid approach as well as for students whose families will want their children to learn from home. However, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday that levels of the virus’ community spread and student illness will determine when they can learn from home.
Many of the school systems said they were still determining their approach in regards to screening and monitoring staff, as the health department recommends.
Novotney said CVCS will follow the guidance by temperature screening “all the adults when they come into the the building.”
In Dunkerton, “we’re going to ask staff to screen themselves, but certainly have thermometers for them,” said Cronin. “All over the guidance is ‘Don’t come to school if you’re sick.’”
The guidance suggests screening all students isn’t feasible. Rather it calls for educating parents on the symptoms of COVID-19 so that they can determine if their child should be kept home.
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COVID-19 has Iowans wanting more information from federal, state and local governments to guide life-or-death decisions raised by the unprecedented pandemic.
Is it safe to go to the store? Do masks prevent spread of the virus? Should my kids go to school in the fall?
At a time when Iowans need accurate and complete information, some state agencies, including the Governor’s Office, are ignoring questions from reporters, refusing to do interviews and stalling on public records requests — sometimes for months, Iowa journalists said.
“I’ve heard from newspapers and TV stations that are at the end of their rope,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. State agencies are “facing legitimate concerns about coronavirus, but they are seemingly using it as a means of deflecting public records requests.”
Without critical pieces of information, residents may not fully understand changing public health recommendations and lose trust in public officials, said Gunita Singh, the Jack Nelson/Dow Jones Foundation legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“Open government isn’t just a nice idea, it’s a cornerstone for an informed citizenry,” Singh said. “We see reporters going above and beyond, but we aren’t seeing government bodies across the board facilitating access to the information.”
Since March, Iowans have been deprived of information in the following ways:
Editor Kyle Ocker or his staff tried to ask the question during then-daily press briefings.
“I have dialed in two to three times, one time up to 15 to 20 minutes early, and never got a question,” Ocker said. “The questions were never addressed by other media during the calls.”
When the office finally fulfilled the request July 24, it said there was one responsive email.
“I’ve suggested a short phone interview. I’ve pledged to drive to meet her wherever she is. I’ve said I’ll make myself available whenever she can squeeze me in — even if it’s off hours on a night or a weekend. But I’ve been given every variation of ‘we see the value in this interview but she’s just so busy right now,’” Pfannenstiel said. But “she has managed to make time for conservative radio and KCCI, though.”
Reynolds tweeted about the call April 6, saying Fauci was “100% supportive, saying IA and NE ‘were on the same page’ with guidance he’s providing other states.”
Reporter Jason Clayworth said he thinks the governor’s tweet probably is accurate.
“But I also think it’s possible the conversation involved important context that may be valuable for the public’s ongoing assessment of how to save human life,” he said. “By thumbing her nose at record requests, the governor dodges accountability to the people she represents.”
Pat Garrett, Reynolds’ spokesman, said he believes his office had provided answers to many of these requests.
“Governor Reynolds and her administration has given an unprecedented level of access to the media and the public throughout the COVID19 pandemic,” he said in an email.
“Whether it’s through daily press conferences, regular media availabilities, and hourly responses to media inquiries, we strive to be transparent. While there’s no way to immediately satisfy everyone’s request, the governor, her cabinet, and the entire team will continue to be as accessible as possible while combating the COVID19 pandemic.”
Garrett announced Thursday that Reynolds would resume twice-weekly news briefings starting Tuesday.
Iowa isn’t the only state where reporters are struggling to get public information during the pandemic.
Since March, officials in 31 states and the District of Columbia have modified Freedom of Information Act laws or warned requesters to expect delays or lack of response, according to a review by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C., group that provides legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and newsgathering rights of journalists.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed in a March 13 declaration proclaimed two parts of the city’s administrative code requiring agencies to respond to immediate disclosure requests in a timely manner had been “suspended for the duration” of the coronavirus emergency,” the Reporters Committee found.
Chicago Public Schools said the COVID-19 pandemic “may result in responses to FOIA requests being significantly delayed or impaired.”
The Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C., not-for-profit that promotes and defends free speech rights of high school and college journalists, reported May 21 that “COVID-19 has created real challenges for record holders, and a convenient excuse for schools looking to stonewall journalists.”
In Iowa, Reynolds has temporarily suspended the requirement that public meetings or hearings be held in person, as long as the public can participate remotely.
There have been no formal changes to Iowa Code Chapter 22, which provides access to public records.
Chapter 22 requires government bodies to provide access to public records as soon as possible. Agencies are granted a “good-faith, reasonable delay” if they are trying to determine if the record requested is indeed public or if they are filing an injunction to stop release of the record.
One part of the law says a reasonable delay for determining whether a record should be open for inspection should not “exceed 20 calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days.”
Some state agencies, especially the Iowa Department of Public Health, are funneling information requests through the Governor’s Office, which creates a bottleneck. And because the governor isn’t subject to oversight from the Iowa Public Information Board, reporters have no recourse when requests are ignored — other than hiring attorneys.
“It removes a low-cost means of getting a resolution,” Evans said.
The Public Health Department, which has been a focus of many COVID information requests since March, earlier this month fired its longtime spokeswoman, Polly Carver-Kimm.
She told Register reporter Tony Leys it was because her bosses thought she shared too much information with reporters.
When Iowa Capitol Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman asked for emails between Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state medical director, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-processing plants, the department asked him to pay nearly $10,000.
The department also refers all questions about Test Iowa, Iowa’s $26 million no-bid COVID-19 testing program, to Reynolds’ office.
“It’s her program,” Garrett said.
When The Gazette followed up on a week-old request asking why Test Iowa had stopped sending health surveys to thousands of Iowans, Garrett said July 24 he had missed the previous email forwarded to him from Public Health.
He provided the answer July 24 (surveys stop after seven weeks if survey takers report no symptoms) but the delay points out the challenges of one office overseeing hundreds of requests — some of which could be handled by others.
Iowa Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia, who this weekend also becomes the new director of Public Health Department, has indicated plans to focus on transparency and communication within the department.
Some state agencies across the country have proved a pandemic doesn’t have to hinder the public’s access to information, Singh said.
The Minnesota Department of Administration issued a statement in March reminding agencies of their obligations to respond to public records requests in an emergency.
“Entity responses must be prompt and appropriate, and within a reasonable amount of time. The reasonable and appropriate standards are flexible enough to accommodate changes in circumstances due to the current emergency. However, data request response times for data subjects remain 10 business days. ... Entities might also consider waiving copy fees at this time when they deem appropriate.”
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns recommends agencies post records online so they are available to the public even when offices are closed, according to the Reporters Committee’s research.
The committee recommends journalists submit requests electronically to help records custodians keep track. Journalists also should prioritize requests related to COVID-19 and streamline requests that need a timely response, the committee said.
“One practice we recommend is keeping lines of communications open,” Singh said. Agencies should tell reporters when there will be a delay, but estimate when the information will be available. Journalists should communicate more about their deadlines, she said.
“I don’t think the argument ‘we need to be making these sweeping changes’ carries any weight,” she said. “We are seeing examples of jurisdictions that are easily balancing the need to stay safe and also to provide the free flow of information.”