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Amid Growing COVID-19 Cases, Some Rural Counties Are Concerned About Reopening

Guilherme Cunha
Gov. Kim Reynolds partially repoened 77 counties on May 1. Some counties have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases.

As Gov. Kim Reynolds has started to ease restrictions across parts of the state, some rural counties have seen an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, making some local officials concerned about reopening.

On May 1, Gov. Reynolds started allowing the partial reopening of restaurants, fitness centers and malls in 77 of the state’s counties, where she said the virus was less prevalent.

The number of cases isstill growing in Iowa and some of the state’s newer hotspots are in places that have been able to ease restrictions, like Wapello and Crawford counties.

On April 27, when Reynolds announced she was easing some restrictions, Wapello County had just 10 confirmed cases. 

On Tuesday, that number had increased to 108 confirmed cases.

Wapello County Public Health Director Lynelle Diers said that increase is because more testing is now available for essential workers, like meat processing plant workers.

Diers said she’s suspected for a while that there were unconfirmed COVID-19 cases in her county.

“There wasn't enough testing supplies to test people. So you could never confirm that it was here,” she said. 

Diers declined to name which employers in the county were linked to COVID-19 cases. 

But Ottumwa Mayor Tom Lazio said he thinks community spread is likely responsible for the increase in cases. He said the new cases aren’t linked to any one employer.

“I think it's to be anticipated when you do more testing, you find more more positives,” he said.

Lazio said some cases have been linked to a JBS pork processing plant in the area, but the number of workers confirmed to have the virus has not reached the 10 percent threshold the state is using to report business outbreaks. Meat processing plants have been the sites of some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state.

One JBS worker was confirmed to have the virus in March, according to the Ottumwa Courier.

A statement issued by JBS on Monday declined to say if additional workers at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19.

Diers said she expects the number of cases in Wapello County to keep growing as testing continues and has recommended that everyone stay home, if possible.

“If you don't need to be out, then don't go out,” she said.

As of Tuesday, 528 people have been tested in the county of about 35,000, according to the state public health department.

Credit Office of Governor Kim Reynolds
Office of Governor Kim Reynolds
These are the 77 counties that were able to partially re-open on May 1.

Even though they’re allowed to open, Diers said a lot of businesses in Wapello County have chosen to stay closed and many churches are still holding services online.

“I have a lot of respect for the decisions that were made to continue to support people to stay at home and stay healthy,” she said.

She said the county health department, which consists of just her and another nurse, is working with businesses that are choosing to open. She said the county’s emergency manager has found several other people to help with contact tracing.

“There is some anxiousness down here because we're getting more positive cases. But in the same sense, it's not a surprise,” she said. “Most of us knew that we had it here. It’s just we did not have the numbers to say we had it here. Now we do.”

State Rep. Mary Gaskill, a Democrat who represents Ottumwa, said she’s asked state officials for more testing, but she has not received a reply.

“I just think we need testing here, and I'm going to do whatever I can to see if we can get it,” she said.

Confirmed coronavirus cases increase in Crawford County

Western Iowa’s Crawford County had 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases on April 28, according to the county health department. State data on Tuesday showed the county has 96 confirmed cases and 205 people have been tested.

Similar to Wapello County’s public health director, Crawford County Public Health Director Kim Fineran attributes the increase in cases to more testing being available. She said she never doubted that the virus was in the county.

“It’s distressing to me, as it should be to every other human being on the face of the Earth,” Fineran said. “I don’t want to see anybody sick, so obviously I’m distressed that my people are sick.”

Fineran said the rise in cases “has nothing to do with” businesses being able to reopen at 50 percent capacity on May 1, because the incubation period of the virus runs up to two weeks.

“I think what we’re seeing is a direct result of Easter and the holiday and families probably getting together,” Fineran said. “Now we are where we are.”

Fineran said they're working with the state to do contact tracing to identify people who may have been in contact with anyone who has COVID-19. She declined to disclose the number of contact tracers tracking COVID-19 in the county.

Fineran said that "a number of community partners” have been working together to bring testing into the county's manufacturing industries, long term care facilities and eventually anyone who wants testing.

That’s something Denison Mayor Pam Soseman said her city, the largest city in Crawford County, needs.

“We do not have adequate testing,” she said. Soseman said she has been told the demand for testing exceeds the current availability, but said she hasn’t received a direct answer on why they can’t get testing.

“I’ve asked for drive-by testing and apparently we aren’t qualified yet as a hotspot,” Soseman said.

Soseman declined to name the employers that could be associated with the spike in cases. But she said people in her community are scared. 

“I do believe there is some more anxiety,” Soseman said. “I’m getting calls every day. And I address those the best I can.”

Though businesses in Denison were allowed to partially reopen on May 1, Soseman said quite a few remain concerned and have stayed closed. Other businesses have reopened with guidelines for customers, such as cautioning them to wear masks in their store.

“We haven’t peaked yet,” said Soseman, acknowledging that the date they were expected to peak has already passed. “Our cases are certainly jumping day by day. And I cannot confirm where all those cases are coming from.” 

Since meatpacking plants around the country have been hotspots for COVID-19, Soseman said workers at local plants in Denison have expressed concerns about going to work.

The city is home to Smithfield Foods and Quality Food Processors.

Three staff members at Eventide, a senior living community in Denison, have tested positive for COVID-19. The first was reported last week. Two additional cases were announced Monday. The CEO of the facility, Mindi Baker, said no residents have tested positive. The state defines a long term care facility outbreak as one where at least three residents test positive for the virus.

Gov. Reynolds said last week that state officials would continue to monitor cases in counties that are allowed to ease restrictions. If numbers started to rise, they could go back into effect, she said.

At a press conference on Tuesday, she said the state has moved into the “recovery phase” of COVID-19 and said it is using data from the online Test Iowa assessment to determine what action should be taken in spots where viral activity was increasing. 

“That allows us to really start to drill in and again, get in front of it before we see a significant spike,” she said.

She declined to say if she was planning to take any action in counties that have been allowed to partially reopen and have seen an increase in confirmed cases.

But experts have warned that easing restrictions too quickly could lead to an increase in infections.

A report by the University of Iowa researchers that was released by state officials last week recommended that social distancing measures should stay in place, or else the state risks a second wave of infections. 

Reynolds has called some of the recent numbers and the report “snapshots in time,” saying the department is looking for trends in the data to determine where the cases are currently coming from.

On Tuesday, she said Iowans need to “do the right thing” by continuing to practice social distancing and limit groups to no more than 10 across the state in order to safely reopen the state.

“There’s more than just the virus. There is the physical, there is the mental well-being, and there is the financial well-being too,” she said. “Iowans are seeing their livelihoods just destroyed. We have to manage all of that.”

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.