After nearly four months of emergency steps to manage the spread of new coronavirus infections, COVID-19 cases in Iowa are on the rise again — alarming local health officials.
After new COVID-19 cases in Iowa slowly ebbed over a few weeks, the rate of infection has suddenly escalated in certain parts of Iowa, reaching record-breaking single-day totals and prompting local officials to urge residents to wear face masks in public and follow social distancing guidelines.
A resurgence of COVID-19 cases has been reported across the United States, occurring weeks after most of the country had eased restrictions and begun reopening local economies.
As of Friday, ahead of the long holiday weekend, nearly 40 states were reporting increases.
In Iowa, the rate of those tested for the infection found to be positive stood at 9.5 percent. That’s up from last Monday’s positivity rate of 6.34 percent, according to data from the state’s coronavirus website.
Iowa’s rolling seven-day average of new cases also has been on the rise, according to state data. That average was 284 cases for the week ending June 20. By the end of the next week, it had shot to 363 cases.
Despite those increases, Iowa has not seen the same degree of surge seen in some other states, state officials say.
In a recent news conference, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Iowa was seeing an overall downward trend in new cases. Since the overall positivity rate stands below 10 percent, data indicates Iowa is showing “positive signs of recovery,” she said.
“We’re not seeing what’s happening in Florida and Texas and Arizona. I’m seeing the positivity rate go down, I’m seeing hospitalizations go down,” Reynolds said during a news conference Tuesday in Hardin County. “Any death is heartbreaking, but we are seeing those numbers go down too.”
Iowa now included in travel advisory
Hot spots are emerging in the southern and western part of the country. States including Florida, Texas and Arizona are among those that had ended stay-at-home orders earlier in the spring, before other parts of the country.
But it’s also worth noting that California, another state hard hit in the latest resurgence, had one of the nation’s earliest statewide stay-at-home orders.
The recent increase in Iowa was enough to prompt New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to list the state in a travel advisory issued by officials this past week.
According to the advisory, any individual traveling from a state with an “increased prevalence of COVID-19” must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival there.
The advisory applied to any state with a total positivity rate higher than 10 percent, or a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 people.
While Iowa did not meet the 10 percent positivity rate at the time, the state is among the highest rates of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents nationwide according to some reports.
On Friday, a Washington Post analysis of each state showed that Iowa has the nation’s 11th worse rate of new cases per 100,000 people.
An analysis by the New York Times found Iowa ranks 25th per capita among the 38 states where new cases are rising. The analysis found cases per capita were staying about the same in 10 other states, and decreasing in two states and Washington. D.C.
In response to the surge in new cases, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars in the state to close once again and restaurants to reduce half capacity. California and Arizona have taken similar steps to reverse reopening, but Florida has appeared staunch in its resolve to stay open.
The Iowa Governor’s Office did not respond to The Gazette’s questions whether Reynolds would consider ordering businesses closed again.
In her news conference last week, Reynolds noted that some businesses in hard hit counties — like some in Johnson County — have chosen on their own to temporarily close without a state mandate.
“Business owners are making difficult but responsible decisions to safeguard the lives and livelihood of Iowans and I commend them for their actions,” she said.
Surge causes concern among local officials
The surge of new cases in Iowa is most concentrated in 10 counties, where 60 percent of all new positive cases statewide have occurred, Reynolds said.
That's prompted the Muscatine mayor to announce she would issue a mandate that people wear face coverings in public in the city, while Scott County Supervisor Ken Croken has placed a motion on the supervisor's next agenda asking for the same.
These counties have a relatively high population density and are home to the state’s public universities and colleges.
Since June 14, Johnson County has seen a resurgence of positive COVID-19 tests among residents. Between June 21 and 28, new case counts increased by nearly 43 percent, from 770 new cases to 1,098.
By Friday, the total case count countywide had reached 1,234, according to the state.
Linn County reported a similar trend after the average number of reported new cases per week increased from 35 the week of June 7 to 101 the week of June 21. That’s roughly a 190 percent increase, noted Heather Meador, supervisor for the clinical services branch of Linn County Public Health.
This prompted local officials to hold a news conference ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, sternly urging residents to continue practicing public health measures including social distancing and wearing masks.
“It’s typical for elected officials to talk about this in unprecedented terms, but I think that term has lost its punching power. In the early stages, this was unprecedented. We didn’t know how to live with or adapt to COVID-19,” said Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers.
“But now we know, and we can no longer plead ignorance to or ignore the science of what this virus is, how it spreads and the damage it can do to our economy, to our health, to our loved ones and to our children’s education,” he continued.
What is causing the increase in cases?
Some experts indicate that more efficient and widespread testing has played a role in the climbing case count.
Reynolds did praise Test Iowa efforts, and with nearly 321,000 individuals tested as of Friday, about 1 in 10 Iowans have been tested.
Reynolds said new cases are concentrated among adults aged 18 to 40, as the rate of new cases among that age group has increased from 41 percent to 91 percent since June 14.
Public health officials in Linn and Johnson counties say those between 18 and 25 are being infected with the virus, leading officials to point to social gatherings as the likely culprit. Dr. Louis Katz, Scott County medical director, has pointed to people under 30 gathering at bars, restaurants and other social gatherings.
The recent protests against police brutality that have drawn thousands have not been a factor in Scott County, health officials say. In other parts of the state, health officials say those events are likely not the main reason for the recent spike.
The virus is less likely to spread outdoors, and there was an emphasis on mask-wearing at the protests in the Quad-Cities. In addition, officials report few of those who recently tested positive reported being at a protest.
Instead, those who have tested positive say they have attended large social gatherings, many of which were in indoor, crowded spaces such as bars and restaurants.
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