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Reynolds announces first steps to re-open Iowa while coronavirus deaths hit record high

Reynolds announces first steps to re-open Iowa while coronavirus deaths hit record high

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DES MOINES — On a day when Iowa had its highest numbers yet of new coronavirus-related cases and deaths, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the first steps to re-open the state’s myriad closed businesses and amenities.

The state confirmed 521 new COVID-19 cases and 11 additional virus-related deaths Friday, including three in Black Hawk County and one in Bremer County. On Saturday, the state announced 648 positive cases for a total of 5,092 positive cases. It included one additional death for Black Hawk County.

There are now a total of 112 deaths due to the virus.

Also on Friday, Reynolds announced that starting Monday hospitals and clinics may resume conducting elective surgeries, and that farmers markets may operate, provided patrons practice safe social distancing measures. Both orders are effective statewide. In Waterloo, Mayor Quentin Hart announced Friday that the city’s public golf courses would reopen, as well as the Pat Bowlsby Memorial Dog Park and the Byrnes Park Tennis Center.

“This is our first step of many to re-opening Iowa and getting life and business back to normal as soon as possible,” Reynolds said during her daily briefing on the state’s pandemic response. She said she plans to announce more steps on Monday. “It will be done in a responsible and a safe manner, but we are at a place where it’s time to start having that discussion.”

The record one-day number of new cases is partially due to increased testing efforts by the state. More than 2,700 tests were processed Thursday; Reynolds said that is much higher than the state had been testing on a daily basis.

But Iowa also has experienced its two highest single-day death totals in the past week: 11 confirmed Friday and 10 confirmed on April 18.

Reynolds said that increased testing, in addition to expanded contact tracing and the rollout of the new Test Iowa program, is why she feels comfortable starting a gradual re-opening of the state. She said the testing will help the state identify areas where the virus is less disruptive, which will allow for a gradual, regional approach to re-opening businesses and amenities.

In addition, three area senior living facilities have announced they have positive COVID-19 cases among employees and at least one resident. A NewAldaya Lifescapes employee is being treated, as well as a Ravenwood Specialty Care employees. Three Western Home Communities employees have tested positive, and a resident has as well. CEO Kris Hansen said they believe the resident contracted the virus during an essential medical procedure outside of Western Home Communities. The resident is in isolation “we we believe this presents a low risk of exposure to employees because they’ve consistently worn a full complement of personal protective equipment while providing care,” he said.

The state public health department has divided the state into six regions and ranks the severity of the virus’ prevalence in each region on a 1-to-12 scale with 12 being the most severe. As of Friday, the northeast, southeast and south central regions all were rated a 9, while the northwest, southwest and north central regions were rated no higher than a 6.

As of Friday, nearly half — 46 percent — of all confirmed cases were in four eastern and central Iowa counties: Polk, Black Hawk, Linn and Johnson.

Meantime, the bottom 87 counties combined to account for just 17 percent of all cases, including 15 counties that remained without a single recorded case. Woodbury remains the only county in the western half of the state with at least 100 confirmed cases.

“While there are some areas in our state where virus activity is still high, we have many more areas where it’s manageable or even minimal. And this presents an opportunity to start to open Iowa back up in a phased and responsible manner,” Reynolds said during the briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

Reynolds added she is ready to begin re-opening Iowa in part because the state has been able to avoid a rush on its health care system.

According to state figures, there were 278 patients hospitalized, 104 in intensive care and 60 on ventilators as of Friday. Meantime, the state has nearly 4,000 in-patient beds, more than 500 ICU beds and nearly 700 ventilators available.

The state continues its effort to acquire more protective equipment for health care workers — like face masks and shields, and gowns. And Reynolds on Friday invited nurses to volunteer to help staff at long-term care facilities, which are being hit by COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the state.

Todd Prichard, a state lawmaker and leader of the Iowa House Democrats, issued a statement after Reynolds’ briefing Friday saying the governor should make public the data and projections her administration is using to determine when and where it is safe to re-open Iowa businesses.

“Instead of sending mixed signals, the governor needs to provide clear leadership to bring Iowa out of this pandemic safely. The governor didn’t provide the information necessary today to demonstrate to Iowans that it is safe to loosen restrictions that prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” Prichard said in a news release. “We all want to re-open our economy and get life back to normal as quickly as possible. However, there is significant risk of more deaths, infections, and a prolonged economic downturn if restrictions are lifted too soon.”

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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