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As COVID-19 Cases Increase In The US, Health Experts Warn Iowans To Be Cautious

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Charlie Neibergall
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AP Photo
Maryam Jorgensen of Des Moines wears gloves and a face mask as she waits to catch a bus after grocery shopping on March 30 in Des Moines.

As COVID-19 cases have increased across the country, some local public health officials are urging Iowans to take extra precautions.

The average number of new daily COVID-19 cases had been declining in Iowa since mid-May. But in the last week, they have leveled off with at least a half dozen counties, such as Floyd, Story, Johnson, Scott and Dubuque, seeing increases in the second part of June. 

On Monday morning, the New York Times reported Iowa as one of the 32 states that is seeing an increase in daily cases.

According to the state data, the number of daily new positive cases has started to increase slightly starting June 24. 

As of Monday, more than 28,000 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 700 have died from the virus, according to state data.

Most of the state’s new cases have been in people between the ages of 18 and 40, according to state health officials. This mirrors a national trend, which has seen a decrease in the average age of people reporting new COVID-19 infections.

At a press conference last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds said young adults made up 55 percent of the new cases so far in June, up from 45 percent in May and 41 percent in April.

However, as the state’s new daily cases have started to trend upward, the state’s COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates have decreased dramatically in the past month and continue to trend downward.

At a press conference last week, Reynolds said the state's young people need to be careful.

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Iowa Department of Public Health

“Even though young adults have a lower risk of serious illness from COVID-19 … they can pose a risk to others if they aren't practicing the public health precautions that are still necessary to prevent virus spread,” Reynolds said.

Story and Johnson counties, which contain the state's two largest public universities, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, both have seen a sharp uptick in cases in the past two weeks.

In both counties, local health department officials have confirmed the majority of the new cases have been in people between the ages of 18 and 25.

Sam Jarvis, the community health division manager at the Johnson County Public Health Department, said he thinks the reopening of businesses is playing a part in his county’s uptick as young people venture out more.

“People I think are operating under the assumption that COVID might be over and it's certainly not,” Jarvis said. “It's still within our community and certainly in the state, in the nation.”

Iowa started easing COVID-19 restrictions on May 1 when Reynolds allowed certain businesses to begin operating with restrictions in 77 of the state’s counties where the virus was less prevalent. 

Two weeks later, Reynolds allowed all counties to reopen businesses like restaurants for dine in service, bars and salons at a 50 percent capacity limit.

Earlier this month, she removed the capacity limit on businesses, but still requires places like bars, restaurants and theaters to practice social distancing by keeping people at least six feet apart.

Last week, Reynolds announced that high school team athletic activities can resume.

This makes Iowa is one of eight states to have reopened so far.

Other states continue to have some COVID-19 restrictions in place, while states like Texas and Florida, which have seen a recent spike in cases, have put some restrictions back in place after they were previously lifted.

But some local health officials worry about what the removal of restrictions could have on their infection rates.

The average number of daily cases in Polk County, the state’s most populous county, have been trending upward for the past week, the county's health department announced on Monday.

Polk County Health Department Spokesperson Nola Aigner Davis said the department has been concerned the county and state will follow the national trend, if residents don’t take precautions like wearing masks and social distancing.

“I think that's what worries us because we know as a state, we're behind. We were one of the last to peak, and so that makes us very worried,” Aigner Davis said.

Aigner Davis said Polk County is encouraging all residents to wear facial coverings in public. 

But as the state reopens, Iowa is one of a few states that has no requirements to wear masks or facial coverings at either the statewide or local levels. 

Reynolds has declined to issue a statewide mandate to wear masks or facial coverings in public, instead urging Iowans to take "personal responsibility" to stop the spread of the virus.

“Iowans need to decide that,” Reynolds said at a press conference on June 18. “The more information we give them then personally they can make the decision whether they feel that they need to wear a mask out or not.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health has issued guidance on the use of cloth face coverings.

Lynn Hicks, the communication director for state Attorney General's office, told IPR in an email that because the governor's latest disaster proclamation has ordered Iowans to follow public health measures consistent with the state health department's guidance, which does not require the use of facial coverings, local authorities do not have legal authority to issue their own mandates to require them at the local level.

But infectious disease specialists say the use of facial coverings, which can help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 by reducing the spread respiratory droplets known to carry the virus, are essential to safely reopening.

“Without face shields or face mask policies we won’t be able to contain the virus,” said Eli Perencevich, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Iowa.

Rossana Rosa, an infectious disease specialist at UnityPoint in Des Moines, said she understands the economic need to reopen businesses. But she said Iowans need to use facial coverings and take extra precautions when they go out to places like restaurants or salons.

“If you're thinking of doing those things, you have to stay safe,” Rosa said. “You have to call ahead and ask, ‘Are you, you know, spacing? Are you, you know, doing outdoor sitting, spacing out your tables? If there's a line, are you trying to keep people away from each other in the line?’”

Eastern Iowa Reporter Kate Payne contributed reporting to this story.