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As A Record Number Of Nursing Homes See COVID-19 Outbreaks, State Posts 4,359 More Cases

Daily Digest

Friday, November 20

4:19 p.m. – More inmates test positive for COVID-19 than prison is built for in Rockwell City

At the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City, more incarcerated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 than the prison was built to house.

According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, as of today, 380 inmates there had tested positive, though most are considered recovered. The official capacity of the prison is 245.

For months, family members and advocates have raised alarms about overcrowding behind bars. Despite efforts to address this, Iowa’s prisons are over capacity by an average of 7 percent.

4:14 p.m. - Waterloo lawmaker wants more information on meatpacking plant outbreaks

This week, allegations surfaced that Tyson plant managers in Waterloo were betting on how many workers would get sick from COVID-19.

Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat from Waterloo, says he wants to know if the state government was complicit in the outbreak that infected more than a thousand workers.

Gov. Kim Reynolds refused to shut down the plant last spring when local officials asked. Smith says he requested public records in April of discussions between Reynolds’ office and Tyson, but he hasn’t received a response.

Reynolds said Thursday she’s proud that the state provided testing for the Tyson workers but declined to comment further. Tyson has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the claims of betting.

4:05 p.m. - Derecho workers from BluSky Construction get paid in full

A month’s dispute between six construction workers and their employer has come to an end after the company agreed to pay the employees in full.

Community-led groups canceled their planned rally for Friday after meeting with BluSky Construction executives. They were advocating for six construction workers who say they did not receive pay for almost a month. The workers had come from Texas to help rebuild Cedar Rapids after the derecho.

Royce Peterson participated in the meeting with construction executives this morning. He is the lead business representative for eastern Iowa, North Central states regional council of carpenters. He says after hearing the workers were owed more than $35,000 and removed from their provided housing, the community came together to give them food and shelter. Peterson says the workers were thankful for the support.

The BluSky executives say the workers should receive their payment tomorrow.

10:31 a.m. - Iowa's unemployment rate one of the lowest in the country

Iowa’s unemployment rate fell in October to 3.6 percent, which is the third lowest rate in the U.S., behind Nebraska and Vermont.

The rate fell by about 1 percent from September and is down from a peak of 11 percent in April.

According to Iowa Workforce Development, the state added the most jobs last month in construction and retail, but the overall size of Iowa’s workforce is still down from pre-pandemic levels by about 90,000 people.

10:00 a.m. - 4,359 new COVID-19 cases, 25 new deaths reported Friday

These numbers reflect a 24-hour reporting period.

Thursday, November 19

5:37 p.m. - COVID-19 spreads rapidly in Iowa prisons

Iowa ranks fourth in the nation for the highest rate of coronavirus cases among prisoners, according to an analysis by the Marshall Project. As COVID-19 has spread rapidly across the state, it’s also spread behind bars, infecting more than 3,000 incarcerated individuals.

One of the hardest-hit prisons is the Anamosa State Penitentiary, where Tracy Pippins’ husband is serving time. She hopes that prison staff take precautions seriously, on and off the job. State prison officials have mandated the use of PPE for staff and inmates, but family members have raised concerns to IPR about the enforcement of those rules.

4:57 p.m. - Contact tracers can't keep up with growing number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa

The number of new coronavirus cases in Iowa is going up so fast that contact tracers with the state Department of Public Health are having a hard time keeping up.

Iowa has added nearly 30,000 positive cases of COVID-19 in the past week and it’s taking longer for people to hear from investigators who identify others who should quarantine and be tested.

Gov. Kim Reynolds says tracers working for the state are now focusing on contacts within a person’s own household in order to speed up the process.

The state is also working on building up its tracing workforce. The Department of Public Health has 100 case investigators, but public health director Caitlin Pedati says the agency is working on hiring 20 more.

Earlier this week the agency called for bids from outside vendors to provide an additional 200 people to trace positive cases.

3:27 p.m. - Iowa nursing homes experience record number of active COVID-19 outbreaks

The number of active COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes soared to a record of 114 Thursday, and advocates are urging Iowans to slow the spread of the virus to protect vulnerable residents.

About one-fourth of Iowa’s 445 long-term care facilities have an active outbreak, and at least 972 nursing home residents had died of COVID-19 as of Thursday, Nov. 19.

Brent Willett is president and CEO of the Iowa Health Care Association, a nursing home industry group. He says Iowans need to take public health precautions because facility outbreaks increase as community spread increases.

The spike in Iowa’s coronavirus infections is also making staffing shortages worse. AARP Iowa is calling on the state to develop a plan to help with staffing and to keep the virus out of facilities. Gov. Kim Reynolds says she’s allocating $14 million for nursing homes.

2:56 p.m. - Gov. Kim Reynolds' $440,000 PSA encourages Iowans to social distance and wear masks

Gov. Kim Reynolds says a new public service announcement featuring well-known Iowans is part of the state’s plan to encourage people to follow social distancing and masking guidelines.

A video message that will air on TV stations includes former Gov. Tom Vilsack, Carson King and University of Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable.

The video mentions using face coverings, but the people in it are not wearing masks themselves. Reynolds said that was so they would be recognizable to viewers.

The state will spend $440,000 in CARES Act funding to air the PSA’s on TV and radio stations through mid-March. The ads will also appear in print and online.

10:04 a.m. - Iowa Department of Corrections announces two new deaths due to COVID-19

The Iowa Department of Corrections has announced two additional deaths due to COVID-19: the death of 64-year Robert Sirovy, who was serving time at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, and the death of a staff member at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

This is the first publicly-known death of an IDOC staffer due to COVID.

The virus has raged throughout the state’s prison system, infecting more than 3,000 and killing nine: the staffer and eight incarcerated individuals.

10:00 a.m. - 4,195 new COVID-19 cases, 38 new deaths reported Thursday

These numbers reflect a 24-hour reporting period.

9:55 a.m. - Gov. Kim Reynolds announces more funding for Iowa Eviction and Foreclosure Program

Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced more funding for the Iowa Eviction and Foreclosure Program after a request from multiple organizations to increase the money meant to prevent people losing their homes during the pandemic.

The additional allocation of funds from the CARES Act leaves about $8 million in the program to prevent evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, thousands have already applied or received assistance. The extra funds were allocated after more than 50 organizations requested more money, who say the initial funds were not enough to help everyone in need.

Renters and homeowners have until Dec. 4 to apply for assistance. They must provide evidence they have loss of income due to COVID-19 and earn less than 80 percent of the median family income in their respective county.

9:46 a.m. - Iowa Workforce Development reports general increase in unemployment filings

Iowa Workforce Development is reporting 6,312 workers filed new unemployment claims last week. That makes five consecutive weeks the number of claims has increased.

The department noted that there is generally an increase in filings from November to February due to seasonal layoffs in industries like construction and agriculture.

There are 35,242 Iowans who are receiving ongoing unemployment payments which is a slight increase over last week.

Wednesday, November 18

5:30 p.m. - Chair of Iowa Democratic Party will not seek re-election

The chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Mark Smith announced Wednesday he will not be seeking re-election.

Smith took the helm 9 months ago, in the chaotic wake of the party’s presidential caucuses.

In a written statement, he highlighted the significant growth in registered Democrats, record early voting in this month’s election and organizing efforts across the state.

But after major losses for candidates at the state and local levels, Smith says it’s time for the party to “rebuild, retool and reenergize”.

He’ll continue to serve until a new chair is elected in January.

4:57 p.m. - Gov. Kim Reynolds loosens restrictions on group fitness activities

Gov. Kim Reynolds has walked back restrictions on group fitness activities that she first announced Monday evening.

The proclamation she signed Monday said, “all group fitness activities are prohibited.” But there were exceptions for high school, college and professional sports.

Wednesday, she modified the proclamation to say that group fitness activities may continue if social distancing is enforced. Even before the change, multiple group fitness businesses were announcing on social media that they received permission from the governor’s office to remain open.

4:04 p.m. - University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics hits peak with COVID-19 hospitalizations

At nearly 100 patients, out of 850 total beds, the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has hit a peak.

But a top official says that due to measures taken to manage the surge, the hospital does have open beds.

Briefing the Iowa Board of Regents Wednesday, CEO Suresh Gunasekaran credited early interventions and remote monitoring of patients in preventing more hospitalizations.

As part of its stage one surge plan, the UIHC has added 16 more intensive care beds for a total of 116. Gunasekaran said another phase of the plan will likely be implemented by next week if conditions don’t improve.

3:11 p.m. - Iowa State Board of Education approves new rules on restraints in schools

The Iowa State Board of Education has approved new rules limiting the use of restraints and seclusion rooms in schools.

The new policy states that students should only be restrained or removed from a class to a seclusion room to prevent them from harming themselves or others or to stop significant property damage.

It cannot be done as a form of discipline or punishment and must end as soon as the dangerous behavior is under control.

The changes come three years after groups including the ACLU of Iowa and Disability Rights Iowa first petitioned the State Board of Education for reforms. They pointed out disparities in the use of restraint and seclusion on students of color and students with disabilities.

2:46 p.m. - Gov. Kim Reynolds' mixed messaging around masks could be undermining effective public health strategy

This week as new coronavirus hospitalizations continue to set new records across Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued new restrictions including a partial indoor mask requirement. Some public health experts worry mixed messaging from the governor is undermining an effective public health strategy.

On Monday evening as Iowa’s daily COVID-19 hospitalizations and death counts once again hit record highs, Reynolds gave a rare prime time statewide address. After months of declining to issue any mask requirements, she announced new mitigation efforts to slow the rapid, widespread transmission, including a partial indoor mask requirement.

The move was met with criticism from some public health experts saying Reynolds’ restrictions, which came with long lists of exceptions, still aren’t going far enough to stop the spread of the virus. But the new requirement marks a shift in her messaging. During the course of the pandemic, Reynolds has declined to issue any kind of mask mandate, saying such a move was unnecessary and unenforceable. Instead focusing her attention on encouraging, not requiring, Iowans to wear them.

Previously, she went so far as to rebuff local governments’ efforts to issue their own mandates.

In Wayne County, heath administrator Shelley Bickel says county supervisors passed a resolution Monday mandating masks and other mitigation strategies. That’s as the county of about 6,400 has recently faced a 14-day average positivity rate above 40 percent.

Bickel says she feels Reynolds and state health officials don’t always understand how difficult it’s been to get people to follow recommendations in her rural community. She just hopes the governor will stay vigilant even as cases decrease.

10:00 a.m. - Iowa Sees Largest Single Day Increase In COVID-19 Deaths

These numbers reflect a 24-hour reporting period.

Tuesday, November 17

5:19 p.m. - U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley tests positive for COVID-19

Iowa’s senior U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley says he has tested positive for COVID-19. The 87-year-old says he’s feeling “fine” and has been quarantining since he was notified Tuesday morning he had been exposed.

Grassley says he will continue to follow doctors’ orders and guidelines on the virus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He missed a vote for the first time since 1993 on Tuesday due to his quarantine and Senate rules barring remote voting.

3:46 p.m. - 2nd Congressional District recount began Tuesday

The recount in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District began Tuesday, Nov. 17, as election workers in Scott County started re-examining votes.

All 394,000 ballots cast across 24 counties will be recounted over the coming days. Many counties are slated to start the process this week. In the largest counties the work will take days.

The second district contest is the closest federal race in the country. Preliminary results show Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leading Democrat Rita Hart by 47 votes.

3:34 p.m. - Gov. Reynolds tells Iowans to wear masks when in doubt

Gov. Kim Reynolds says if Iowans aren’t sure if they need to wear a mask under the new COVID-19 requirements, they should wear a mask. Iowans are now required to wear a mask in many public indoor places when they’re unable to social distance.

When responding to a question about people who don’t believe that masks work, Reynolds said there is “science on both sides," but her spokesman later clarified that she was referring to different viewpoints. Reynolds says she thinks masks are effective and should be part of layered mitigation strategies.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask in public correctly and consistently to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus.

3:28 p.m. - White House Coronavirus Task Force places all Iowa counties in red zone for community spread

The newest White House Coronavirus Task Force report for Iowa has found all of Iowa’s counties have high levels of community spread.

The report placed all 99 of Iowa’s counties in the red zone for community transmission, saying the state’s spread is now "exponential and unyielding."

The report is dated Sunday, Nov. 15 and was released by the state Department of Public Health on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

It found last week that Iowa had the third highest rate of new cases in the country, more than triple the national average, and had a statewide test positivity rate of 24 percent.

The report recommends limiting restaurant capacity to under 25 percent across all counties as well as issuing a statewide mask requirement in all public settings.

The report recommends Iowans once again do not gather with individuals outside of their own household until cases and test positivity rates decrease.

11:00 a.m. - Gov. Kim Reynolds hosts press briefing

10:00 a.m. - 3,563 new COVID-19 cases, 33 new deaths reported Tuesday

These numbers reflect a 24-hour reporting period.

9:50 a.m. - U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has been exposed to coronavirus

Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley has been exposed to the coronavirus, his staff announced Tuesday. According to a written statement, the 87-year-old says he’s feeling “well” and “not currently experiencing any symptoms."

He is quarantining under doctors’ orders and is waiting for his test results to come back.

One of the longest-serving U.S. senators, Grassley is also the Senate Pro Tem and is third in the presidential line of succession.

Monday, November 16

6:05 p.m. - Iowa governor issues partial mask requirement and gathering restrictions, with exceptions

Gov. Kim Reynolds is requiring Iowans to wear masks in public indoor places when they are within 6 feet of someone for 15 minutes or longer. There are many exceptions, and this doesn’t align with CDC guidance.

Indoor gatherings are now capped at 15 people and outdoor at 30 people, but again, there are a lot of exceptions. Bars and restaurants must close at 10 p.m., but there aren’t capacity limits.

These new steps come as the coronavirus continues to surge in the state. Reynolds says Iowa’s health care system “is being pushed to the brink.”

Infectious disease experts say Reynolds’ new measures don’t go far enough, have too many loopholes and send a confusing message.

3:54 p.m. – Des Moines Police Department to adjust officer use of force and crowd management tactics

Des Moines Police Department leaders will consider further adjustments to how officers use force and manage large crowds after meeting with city council members Monday.

The department presented a new crowd control policy created after large scale demonstrations were held over the summer protesting police violence and racial injustice.

Police Chief Dana Wingert says the policy is aimed at managing crowds while respecting free speech rights, but council member Joshua Mandelbaum says it should be more clear that police want to avoid making arrests.

Mandelbaum also pushed the department to specifically rule out the use of kettling, where police block protesters into a confined area. Wingert says the policy states demonstrators should always have a way out, although it does not mention kettling by name.

3:33 p.m. – Linn County Board of Health approves preliminary mask mandate

The Linn County Board of Health gave preliminary approval for a mask mandate Monday. The measure now goes to the board of supervisors for a final vote.

Masks have been shown to protect the wearer and those around them and are critical to slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Stacey Walker is a supervisor and a member of the board of health. He says additional action is needed, as COVID cases surge in the county and statewide.

The board of supervisors debated a mask mandate earlier in the pandemic, but held off due to questions of whether they had the legal authority.

2:47 p.m. African-led organizations to offer workshop for parents with students learning virtually

A collaboration among African-led organizations is planning a workshop for African immigrant and refugee parents to more easily transition with their children to online learning.

Sam Gabriel is the executive director and co-founder of one of the organizations, Genesis Youth Foundation. He says he admires the Latino and Asian communities who have set up workshops like these to help parents, and it’s about time to invest in African parents too.

Gabriel says African immigrants and refugees have always had problems keeping up with the U.S. school system, but COVID-19 made it worse.

The groups will also host seminars to empower youth leaders after the parent workshop, which they plan to host early next year.

11:52 a.m. – Gov. Reynolds to give prime-time address about COVID-19

Gov. Kim Reynolds will give a live address to Iowans this evening about COVID-19.

A news release from her office says Reynolds will announce new steps to fight the virus and talk about the need for Iowans to practice virus mitigation efforts. The speech is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. and will air on Iowa PBS. It will also be livestreamed on our website iowapublicadio.org and on Iowa Public Radio’s Facebook page.

This is likely the first-ever live televised primetime address by an Iowa governor. It comes as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to rise to record levels.

10:00 a.m. - COVID-19 hospitalizations increase by more than 100 patients in 24 hours

On Monday, the state reported 1,392 Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19. That's an increase from 1,279 hospitalizations on Sunday as the state continues to set new daily records. A total of 2,335 additional cases were announced alongside six more deaths.

9:03 a.m. - State’s largest teacher’s union says schools should be able to go virtual without a waiver

Thousands of Iowa students will attend class online this week as schools react to an ongoing surge of COVID-19 in the state.

The Iowa Department of Education has granted more than 40 virtual learning waivers so far this month to both urban and rural districts.

The waivers allow schools to go online for up to two weeks at a time. But the state’s largest teacher’s union says virtual learning should be allowed through the end of 2020 without the state’s permission.

Many are struggling to staff classrooms and bus routes because of the number of workers in quarantine.

Iowa State Education Association president Mike Beranek says it shows that schools are not immune to the pandemic.

Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a partial mask mandate that includes indoor gatherings of more than 25 people, but it does not include schools. Beranek says it should. According to a survey by the ISEA, 40 percent of Iowa school districts do not require students and teachers to wear masks.

Sunday, November 15

5:50 p.m. – Zach Wahls elected Senate Minority Leader

Democrats in the Iowa Senate have elected Zach Wahls to serve as Senate Minority Leader.

Wahls lives in Coralville and was first elected to the Senate in 2018. Senate Democrats elected him to the top position for the minority party after Janet Petersen stepped down.

After this month’s elections, Republicans will continue with the same majority in the Iowa Senate, with 32 seats to the Democrats’ 18.

Wahls says Iowa Democrats have some rebuilding to do and wants to focus on improving the state’s response to the pandemic. But it’s unlikely that the Republicans who control the Iowa Legislature will support the Democrats’ plans.

10:00 a.m. - 9,262 new COVID-19 cases reported over the weekend, alongside 38 more deaths as hospitalizations continue to climb

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 9,262 new coronavirus infections over the weekend, bringing the state to more than 184,000 overall in the pandemic.

Thirty-eight more deaths were reported as well. In all 1,985 Iowans have died from COVID-19.

Hospitalizations continue to climb with 1,392 people currently admitted for treatment, about three times as many as a month ago, and 271 people are in intensive care.

In Polk County, the number of hospitalizations reached more than 200 over the weekend, the most since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement issued Saturday, the Polk County Health Department warned that staffing is the biggest challenge hospitals in the area are facing. A growing number of medical staff who help care for COVID-19 patients are now themselves isolating at home with the virus.

Hospitals are still accepting patients. Polk County health officials say people should not hesitate to call 9-1-1 or seek medical attention when they need it, but the department also asks people to wear masks and take other precautions to slow the spread of the virus.

*These number reflect a 24-hour reporting period ending each day at 10:00 a.m.