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Gov. Reynolds Eases Some COVID-19 Restrictions As New Infections, Hospitalizations Decline

Natalie Krebs
Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Wednesday she is easing some of the COVID-19 restrictions as the rate of new infections and hospitalizations decline.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced at a press conference on Wednesday that she is easing restrictions on restaurants and limitations on gatherings as the state's rate of new infections and hospitalizations decline.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced she is easing some restrictions in response to the decreasing number of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, though these rates are still far higher than the first peak in the spring.

Reynolds said beginning Thursday, restaurants can resume their normal hours and limitations on gatherings will be lifted.

Additionally, the number of spectators allowed at high school youth and adult sporting events has been increased to include all members of the participant’s household. Previously the number of spectators were limited to just two people per athlete.

Reynolds said she would be willing to impose new restrictions if numbers start increasing again.

"I don't want to over-restrict. I think you have to be careful of doing that," she said. "As the governor of the state of Iowa, I have to find that balance to protect the life and livelihoods of Iowans."

The new proclamation still includes the partial indoor mask mandate, which requires Iowans to wear a mask in indoor public spaces if they are unable to socially distance from non-members of their household for more than 15 minutes. It will be in effect through January 8.

Reynolds said the state has seen an overall decline in cases since mid-November and "even further stabilization in the past week."

On Wednesday, the state's 14-day average test positivity rate for individuals was 14 percent. It's 7-day positivity rate was 10.7 percent.

Hospitalizations have been declining since mid-November, when they hit record highs above 1,500. On Wednesday, hospitalizations were at 776, a number still far higher than hospitalizations during the peak in the spring, when they topped out at 417 on May 7.

But as new infections and hospitalizations decline, Iowa has seen record spikes in new confirmed deaths with more than 900 people confirmed to have died from the virus this month, though some of those deaths took place in the earlier months of the pandemic and can be attributed to a shift in the way the state is reporting COVID-19 deaths.

Jorge Salinas, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said while numbers are decreasing, whether they continue to do so is in the hands of Iowans.

"It depends on us. We could keep it the same way," he said. "I mean, we're still having very high levels of transmission - but just better than a month ago that were catastrophic. So my hope, my wish, my recommendation for all Iowans is to continue following the public health guidance to bring the numbers down even more."

Salinas said he hopes Reynolds' easing of some restrictions doesn't cause cases to increase over the upcoming holiday period.

"I'm afraid that the Iowa public health response has not been fully well-timed. We tend to respond a bit late to surges in cases and to withdraw interventions a little too soon," he said.

Natalie Krebs
Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia said meetings of a panel of experts tasked with making recommendations to state leaders about COVID-19 vaccine distribution would not be open to the public due to the sensitive nature of the conversations.

Reynolds' new public health proclamation comes as Iowa has received its first shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.

Reynolds said as of Tuesday more than 500 health care workers had received the vaccine and the state is expecting to receive shipments of the Moderna vaccine starting Monday, pending its emergency authorization with the FDA.

She announced last week that the state's 432 nursing homes staff and residents, who are also included in the initial group to get the vaccine with healthcare workers, could start getting shots as soon as Dec. 28.

The reason for the delay is that the state, which is taking part in the federal government's program to have drug store chains Walgreens and CVS help distribute the vaccine, must have at least 50 percent of the vaccines they need for residents on hand before they can begin, said state Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia at Wednesday's press conference.

Reynolds said she will be getting vaccinated after the state's health care workers and nursing home staff and residents and believes the vaccine is safe.

"My decision to wait isn't based on any hesitancy about the vaccine. Rather during this first phase, I want to make sure that those on the front lines caring for Iowans and long term care residents who are at risk are vaccinated first," she said.

Garcia said the next group to receive the vaccine as shipments continue still has not been confirmed by the state. But she said the state's newly formed Infectious Disease Advisory Group, which is made up of health care workers and experts, is expected to meet next week to make recommendations to state officials.

She said it would likely focus on those in congregate workplace settings, like schools, food supply plants or corrections facilities.

But Garcia said the group's meetings will not be open to the public, instead meeting minutes will be made available, due to the sensitive nature of the conversation.

"We have been working really hard to balance transparency," she said. "But with having a free flow of conversations, and you can imagine, the type of conversation that we're having that the group is having together is on prioritization, and these are difficult, they're challenging."

Randy Evans, the director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told the Associated Press said the council should open the meetings to the public, in part to avoid controversy and questions about the possible influence of special interest groups in the process.

“You are not going to build that public trust and confidence by making these decisions in secret,” he said.

Salinas, who is on the advisory board, said he's concerned opening the meetings to the public could put pressure on the experts, who are not elected officials, and stifle open conversation.

"I'm not positive that there would be a great benefit of making these hearings or these conversations public," he said. "But I think that there may be some risk of undue influence on these experts."

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter