Gov. Kim Reynolds sees 'positive signs' in state's latest coronavirus data, urges Iowans to remain vigilant

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds sounded a note of cautious optimism Tuesday, a week after announcing new mask requirements and limits on social gatherings that she hopes will slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on Iowa's stressed health care system.

Though Iowa's rates of infections remain high, the number of confirmed cases and the state's overall positivity rate declined this week compared to the previous week.

"While these are positive signs, it's too early to know if they're indicators of a trend," Reynolds said at a news conference.

In their weekly report to Iowa leaders dated Sunday, White House coronavirus task force members wrote that they are “encouraged by the steps the governor is taking to decrease transmission; this is the first week where the rise in cases is less than previous weeks."

But the report cautions that although Iowa saw a decrease in new cases and positivity, 99% of the state's counties have high levels of community transmission and nearly 70% of nursing homes have had a staff member test positive. Iowa was third in the nation for test positivity rate and had the fifth-highest number of cases per 100,000 population.

The White House's report says COVID-19-related hospitalizations will continue in the coming weeks, but they could be brought to more manageable levels with "increased strong mitigation."

Those measures included reducing indoor restaurant capacity to under 25%, limiting bar hours and considering a pause on extracurricular school activities. Task force members also recommended targeting coronavirus testing to those under age 35 with no symptoms, as well as conducting active testing in school for teachers and students.

Reynolds announced no new mitigation measures at Tuesday's news conference, which came as Iowans prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving. She said she will continue to monitor changes in the data and work to target her mitigation efforts to the places she feels they will have the most impact. 

"I've said all along we'll dial up and dial down depending on what we see," she said. "... We've seen stabilization, for sure, and possibly maybe a trend down. But it is way, way, way too early to really say this is a trend. And so we're going to continue to monitor it and see if there's other things that we need to do."

'We're still seeing high, sustained transmission'

Over the past seven days, Reynolds said, Iowa reported more than 16,600 new cases with an average positivity rate of 14.7%. That’s lower than the previous week, when new cases were at nearly 28,000, with a positivity rate over 24%, she said.

On Nov. 17, Reynolds put in place new mask requirements for certain public settings and new restrictions on gatherings. That proclamation extends through Dec. 10. 

Hospitalizations over the past week haven't returned to their Nov. 17 peak of 1,510. However, the chairperson of the Iowa Hospital Association warned on Tuesday that the Iowa hospital region covering the state's most populous area —including Polk, Dallas, and Warren counties in the Des Moines metro, and adjacent Story County, home of Ames and Iowa State University — had at times in the last week been down to two or three intensive care unit beds as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a briefing with stakeholders Tuesday, Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy said statistics in Iowa's most populous county are beginning to stabilize, but it is by no means "out of the woods." 

"We are still seeing high, sustained transmission of the virus throughout our community," she said. "We need to drive our infection rate significantly lower between now and January because if we do not, we will be facing a particularly dark winter." 

Reynolds encouraged Iowans making Thanksgiving plans to follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health, including that people should follow precautions as they travel and refrain from traveling if they have symptoms like a fever or cough, or if they are awaiting coronavirus test results. 

The White House task force report also recommends Iowans wear masks indoors around vulnerable family members.

Long-term care facility outbreaks continue to rise

Tuesday's news conference came as outbreaks at Iowa long-term care facilities continued to spike. As of noon Tuesday, the state was reporting 144 outbreaks, defined as at least three residents testing positive for the coronavirus. The total represents about one-third of all facilities in the state, and is more than a 50% increase from last week.

Reynolds said Tuesday the state has been in contact with the state's facilities to ensure they have enough testing capacity and that they are looking at visitation guidance. 

"We're talking with the leaders of our health systems and our hospitals, we're reaching out to long-term care facilities and we're discussing additional steps that may need to be taken to keep our most vulnerable safe," Reynolds said. 

Reynolds last week said she would provide $14 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money to the facilities to help with increased costs related to testing and staffing. The state additionally released updated guidelines on emergency staffing.

More: COVID-19 maps and charts track cases and data in Iowa and across the U.S.

Reynolds' news conference Tuesday came eight months to the day after Reynolds announced the state's first COVID-19 death. As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, the state reported 2,224 COVID-19 related deaths, an increase of 19 over the state's tally the previous morning. 

The state reported 215,582 confirmed cases of coronavirus, an increase of 3,860 since Monday. Hospitalizations showed an uptick, rising from 1,333 Monday to 1,351 Tuesday. 

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at irichardson@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at bpfann@dmreg.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.