Governor Kim Reynolds is coming under fire for her action last week to lift restrictions put in place to mitigate the coronavirus in Iowa. The restrictions were put in place last November when the state was dealing with the worst of its outbreaks. The situation looks much better now so she has moved to make adjustments. Critics say she is recklessly moving too quickly.
Reynolds was one of the last governors to mandate face masks on a statewide basis. Most governors made that move last spring when coronavirus cases were surging. She waited until November to mandate masks when infections and hospitalizations were surging in Iowa. That mandate required Iowans to wear masks when indoors and unable to socially distance for 15 minutes or more. State reports show that at the time, more than 1,500 Iowans were hospitalized with COVID-19. Half of the more than 5,170 Iowans killed by COVID-19 died in November and December. In other words, the situation became dire in the state and the governor acted accordingly.
Last Friday Reynolds announced that she was removing the state mask mandate along with social distancing requirements and other COVID-19 mitigation measures in place for businesses and social gatherings. Her order went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. She said at the time that this doesn’t mean that Iowans should behave as though everything is back to normal. Her spokesperson said the governor “strongly encourages Iowans, businesses, and organizations to take reasonable public health measures consistent with guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health.” There was no explanation of why Reynolds decided to relax the restrictions now.
It looks as though Reynolds relaxed the restrictions because of the decline in coronavirus cases and a desire to help businesses survive the pandemic. She lifted them as daily reported case numbers and hospitalizations have shown declines since their spike in November. The state opened up vaccine eligibility to hundreds of thousands of Iowans a week ago. The governor is under fire for allegedly not consulting with state health officials. Added to the mix is the fact that confirmation has been made that the more aggressive U.K. variant of the coronavirus is now in Iowa. Like other states, Iowa is experiencing shortages of COVID-19 vaccines.
Still, the state reported another 804 confirmed cases Friday morning, and on Thursday the state surpassed the 5,000 deaths mark. Meanwhile, the coronavirus vaccine supply remains limited and in high demand, with Reynolds on Thursday saying Iowa ranks 47th in the nation in per capita vaccine distribution from the federal government and 46th in the rate of administering vaccines to residents.
Is she moving prematurely? The executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, Lina Tucker Reinders, thinks so.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, to put it bluntly,” she said. “We’re not out of the pandemic yet.”
She said although coronavirus test positivity rates have decreased, they could spike again. As new variants of the virus surface, she said people need to continue taking the same recommended precautions they have been to slow the spread.
“We have so many people wanting a vaccine, which is fantastic,” she said. “This isn’t the time to let our guards down. This is the time to just, head-down, trudge on as we have been to make sure we get everybody through it.”
Wednesday Reynolds defended her action. She said that hospitalizations for COVID-19 have dropped 80% since November, and outbreaks in nursing homes have plummeted from a peak of 166 to 39 on Wednesday. There are fewer than 300 COVID-19 hospitalizations for the first time since September.
None of Iowa’s 99 counties had a 14-day positivity rate above 15% on Wednesday. Polk County, the state’s most populous, was at 11%.
Statewide, Iowa’s 14-day positivity rate was 8.6% on Wednesday.
The state calculates the positivity rate by dividing the number of individuals who tested positive over the past 14 days by the total number of individuals who were tested in total over those 14 days.
Iowa lawmakers participated in a conference call with state health officials. When asked, the Department of Public Health officials said the governor didn’t consult with them. The governor’s spokesperson pushed back on that accusation.
“We asked the Iowa Department of Public Health if they had input into the governor’s decision to lift the mask mandate on Friday and they said they had not,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, a Democrat who participated in the meeting. “I just can’t understand why the governor would lift that when we still have such a low percentage of vaccinations completed.”
Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said the lifting of coronavirus mitigation measures correlates with a reduction in virus activity in the state.
“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic and is following through with her commitment to dial back restrictions based on a significant decrease in COVID hospitalizations,” he said in a statement.
As I mentioned in a previous post today, the White House is not onboard with lifting any restrictions at this time. Joe Biden has spoken favorably of lockdowns in the past and there is no indication that taking personal freedom from Americans by using the excuse of the pandemic is easing up any time soon.
On Monday, the White House COVID Response Team said states should not ease restrictions now because new variants of the coronavirus that spread more easily and are potentially more deadly are now circulating.
“We have yet to control this pandemic. We still have this emergent threat of variants and I would just simply discourage any of those activities. We really need to keep all of the mitigation measures at play here if we’re really going to get control of this pandemic,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
It looks to me that Governor Reynolds is doing what she thinks works best for her state. She uses data produced by state health officials and is easing up on restrictions so that businesses can either reopen or service more customers to remain viable. Reynolds rightfully says that Iowans have been told for a year that some mitigation measures work in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Wearing face masks, social distancing, and handwashing are not new measures. She expects Iowans to show some personal responsibility and act accordingly. She can always re-instate more stringent measures if conditions warrant that. In the meantime, she is telling Iowans to do the right thing so everyone can get through this.