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558 New Cases Of COVID-19 And 15 Additional Deaths Reported Friday In Iowa

Daily Digest

Friday, February 19

4:31 p.m. – Two more Iowans arrested and charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol
FBI agents arrested Deborah Sandoval of Des Moines and her son, Salvador Sandoval Jr. of Ankeny, Friday.

They’re both charged with knowingly entering any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and with violent entry and disorderly conduct on capitol grounds. Deborah Sandoval was also charged with knowingly disrupting the orderly conduct of government. Her son was charged with interfering with law enforcement.

The total number of Iowans arrested for alleged crimes related to the U.S. Capitol attack now stands at four.

2:52 p.m. - U.S. House Committee to review challenge in race for Iowa's 2nd District seat
The U.S. Committee on House Administration has adopted rules in order to consider an election contest filed by Democrat Rita Hart.

It is one of the first procedural steps in addressing the challenge of the certification of Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District.

Hart has argued that at least 22 ballots were wrongfully left out of the count, enough to make a difference in the race, which was decided by a mere six votes.

In a meeting Friday, committee Chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) would not speak directly to the details of the contest.

“I am not going to get into the merits of the contests before us because that will be for down the line in the process,” Logren said.

Miller-Meeks has argued the challenge should be dismissed.

12:59 p.m. - Hinson to vote against latest COVID-19 aid package
U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, says she is prepared to vote against the latest coronavirus aid package, which would extend unemployment benefits and authorize another round of direct payments.

Public polling indicates that a majority of Americans support the proposal, but Hinson says she remains opposed to the bill’s $15 minimum wage provision.

“I can tell you, at this point, I’m planning to vote no on the package because it includes provisions that were added in committee that I just cannot support, including a $15 minimum wage,” she says.

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the wage increase would affect nearly one-third of workers in Hinson’s district. She and other members of the House Budget Committee will review the proposal during a hearing on Monday.

12:43 p.m. - Blank Park Zoo announces Spring Light Festival
Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines announced Friday a spring light festival that will feature dozens of larger-than-life illuminated lanterns shaped like plants and animals.

The custom-made lanterns will be lit up for a nighttime display through April and May. Blank Park CEO Anne Shimerdla says the zoo wanted to open the season with something special after most events last year were cancelled because of the pandemic.

Attendance will be limited to 1,800 people each night to allow for physical distancing.

10 a.m. - 558 new COVID-19 cases, 15 deaths reported Friday

Thursday, February 18

7:36 p.m. - Iowa House passes COVID-19 funding bill favoring schools who hosted students in-person
The Iowa House has passed a $27 million funding package for schools to cover COVID-19 related costs.

The money would be available to all districts, but schools that spent the most time in-person would receive the largest share of funding.

Republicans say the bill is meant to address the cost of having students in school during the pandemic, but Democrats say that ignores the cost of hybrid and remote learning.

“Some districts will get more money because they were 100 percent in person,” said Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City). “So yes there are winners and losers in this bill and the losers will be the students.”

Under the House bill, schools that were in hybrid or remote learning because of damage caused by the summer derecho would be funded as though students were in-person.

6:47 p.m. – GOP lawmakers approve $21 million computer system for state government
Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate have approved paying $21 million for a new state computer system.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration signed a $50 million contract with Workday in 2019.

Last year, Reynolds used $21 million of federal coronavirus relief funding for the computer system. The federal government later asked her to return the money to pandemic relief efforts because the expenditure wasn’t allowed.

Republican lawmakers say the new system is necessary to replace the current costly, outdated system.

Rep. Chris Hall (D-Sioux City) says the system is old, but he’s concerned about the process the governor’s office used to choose Workday and pay for it. They have heaped a contract into our lap and we are looking at $21 million that could be so better spent at a time that we are recovering from a pandemic.”

The funding bill now goes to the governor for final approval.

6:25 p.m. – Davenport’s only Black city councilmember resigns
Davenport Alderman Patrick Peacock announced at a city meeting Wednesday night that he’d be stepping down, citing “personal reasons.”

In a video published by the Quad-City Times, Peacock told a constituent after Wednesday’s meeting that his colleagues are “tone deaf” to the concerns of people of color, and said that factored into his decision. But speaking to IPR, Peacock said that wasn’t the primary reason, and he hinted at future political aspirations, saying he “legally” had to resign.

“So…and like I’m trying to tell people, it’s got nothing to do with racism. No it hasn’t…yes that played a factor, yes I’m frustrated, but that’s not the reason. That’s not the reason why I’m resigning,” he said.

Peacock will stay on the council through April.

2:33 p.m. – U of I law professor calls for review of state laws on rejecting ballots
A University of Iowa law professor and member of a recount board in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District is calling for a review of state laws on rejecting ballots. Todd Pettys served on the Johnson County recount board. He said he was disturbed by some of the rules, which he says have their roots in the voting systems of the 1800s and have long been outdated.

Pettys gave the example of a voter who made a mistake on their ballot, corrected it and signed their initials.

“You know to show, ‘oh yeah this is me scratching this out. It’s not someone else who got their hands on my ballot and tried to remark it.' Well that’s called an identifying mark. And any ballot with an identifying mark is disqualified,” he said.

Pettys’ article calling for a review of recount procedures is slated to be published in the Iowa Law Review later this year.

2:11 p.m. – Iowa LULAC partners with Biden task force on COVID-19
The nation’s oldest Latino advocacy organization says it is going to be partnering with a Biden administration taskforce looking at COVID-19 health concerns. The League of United Latin American Citizens’ Iowa chapter wants to make sure its specific concerns are heard.

This year, the national chapter announced it is working closely with the Biden administration in its COVID-19 health equity task force. Joe Henry is the political director for LULAC’s state chapter. He says Iowa has more specific equity concerns that need national attention.

With Iowa’s high number of meat packing plants and high number of Latino employees, Henry says vaccine access is a major issue affecting Iowa’s Latinos. He says he applauds the administration for working with national LULAC. “But clearly what we’ve seen in Iowa through our LULAC councils, we are sure more needs to be discussed.”

Almost 200,000 Latinos live in Iowa and Henry says the Iowa league needs to make sure information gets to national LULAC. Especially as the national league continues its partnership with the Biden administration.

2:02 p.m. - GOP lawmakers fast-tracking bill to shorten early voting period in Iowa
House and Senate Republicans are fast-tracking a bill that would shorten Iowa’s early voting period from 29 days to 18 and make other wide-ranging changes to the state’s election laws.

The bill, which would also ban county officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters, was introduced Tuesday. It got advanced through subcommittees Wednesday and through full committees Thursday.

The chair of the House State Government Committee says a public hearing is planned for Monday evening, and the House may vote on the bill as soon as next Wednesday. This timeline is much faster than what is typical for passing legislation.

10:00 a.m. - 628 new COVID-19 cases, 15 deaths reported Thursday

Wednesday, February 17

4:16 p.m. – Biofuel bill advances in the Iowa legislature
Iowa lawmakers have advanced a proposal that would bring gasoline with higher amounts of ethanol and biodiesel to more fuel pumps in the state.

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed the bill. It would bring gasoline with ethanol and biodiesel to almost all fuel pumps in Iowa. One pump at each site would be able to sell gasoline with no biofuels.

Convenience store chain Kum & Go opposes the bill. Matt McKinney is a lobbyist for the company. “Consumer behavior is driven by price. And our review of this bill demonstrates that prices will increase and choice will decrease.”

Supporters of the bill say it will expand markets and boost the economy.

4:04 p.m. – Senate panel advances absentee voting bill
Republicans on a Senate panel have advanced a bill to shorten Iowa’s early and mail voting period from 29 days to 18 days. The bill would also ban county election officials from sending out ballot request applications.

Amy Campbell-Fleming is a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters and the Area Agencies on Aging. She says both groups are opposed to the bill because it would make it harder for older people and disabled Iowans to vote. “Not allowing the county auditor to send out a request form for any reason is a big concern. Individuals with disabilities or older Iowans might not have a printer to print it off at home nor would they have transportation or the time to go down to their county auditor’s office to get that.”

The bill also proposes criminal penalties for local election officials who don’t comply with guidance from the secretary of state. Sen. Roby Smith (R-Davenport) says a handful of county auditors caused confusion and lawsuits ahead of the 2020 election, and he says they must follow directives from the state.

4:01 p.m. – Iowa City’s city council discusses report on use of tear gas against racial justice protestors
The Iowa City city council is considering how to move forward, following an independent review of law enforcement officers’ use of tear gas against racial justice protestors last summer.

The lengthy report by a California-based firm found it was the Iowa State Patrol that made key decisions to block protestors from marching towards Interstate 80 and to use less-than-lethal munitions against them.

On Tuesday the city council discussed the report and how to move forward on its 39 recommendations. Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague. “I think certainly the community is welcome to weigh in. I also believe that we should task our chief of police to weigh in on this.”

Separately, the city is also taking public comment on its preliminary plan to restructure the police, which also grew out of last summer’s protests.

4:00 p.m. – State health officials making changes to COVID-19 data reporting
State health officials have announced by the end of this week they will switch to reporting COVID-19 percent positivity based on the number of total tests. That’s instead of tracking it by the number of individuals who test positive.

Interim Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia says the change was made because testing has greatly increased in the past few months. Additionally, availability of at-home tests will no longer allow the state to track all individuals who test positive.

“While this is good news for many, many reasons, the expansion of testing approaches will further limit the availability of public health to monitor all of these results on an individual level,” she said.

The state will still report how many individuals have tested positive through PCR and antigen tests on the state’s coronavirus website.

1:43 p.m. – State cancels plans to build COVID-19 vaccine platform with Microsoft
Gov. Kim Reynolds says the state will not move forward with plans to contract with Microsoft to build a centralized COVID-19 vaccine registration system. Reynolds announced last week the state had selected Microsoft to build the centralized vaccination system that would be up and running within a few weeks. But at a press conference, Reynolds said the state will not move forward with the partnership.

Reynolds said upon review, the state determined the new system would cause too much disruption to current systems in place and said the state will now work to strengthen existing programs like 211.“Part of the issue is our Iowans are already used to utilizing that call center. And so that's normally where they would go. And we just want to be careful about layering other options on top of that,” she said.

Reynolds said Iowans who are struggling to make an appointment online can call their local Area Agency on Aging.

12:38 p.m. - School funding bill headed to Reynolds’ desk
The Iowa Senate has passed a bill that would increase funding for PreK-12 schools next year by 2.4 percent. The measure now goes to Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is expected to sign it.

Because of declining enrollment during the pandemic, about 40 percent of school districts would actually see a drop in state support and could collect extra property taxes to make up for it. Democrats say a larger increase in state support would prevent that, but Sen. Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton) says that could put future funding growth into question. "This is a solid funding bill that sets our schools on a predictable, reliable, fundable path into the future," she said.

Sinclair says Republicans in the House and Senate are negotiating a one-time funding package for schools to address the impact COVID-19 has had on expenses and enrollment.

10:00 a.m. - 624 new COVID-19 cases, 43 more deaths reported Wednesday

Tuesday, February 16

9:57 p.m. – Iowan faces additional charges in breaching the U.S. Capitol January 6
Federal prosecutors have filed new charges against the Des Moines man accused of breaching the U.S. Capitol on January 6. A new indictment filed against Doug Jensen last week includes dangerous weapons charges after an FBI agent testified Jensen carried a pocket knife when he entered the Capitol.

Photos and videos have been widely circulated of Jensen wearing a QAnon shirt and leading an angry mob towards a lone Black police officer during the raid.

Last week the Senate voted unanimously to award the officer, Eugene Goodman, a Congressional Gold Medal for steering the rioters away from lawmakers.

7:05 p.m. – Extreme cold elevates utility demand
The extreme cold has caused a spike in demand for Iowa electric cooperatives. Some have had to deal with rolling blackouts.

As Matt Washburn puts it, the demand for electric usage has been off the charts. He’s the executive vice president of Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative. “Due to the lack of generation to meet the extreme loads due to this extreme weather event, we have had the unprecedented event of having to curtail load.”

Washburn says they only needed to curtail load for one hour Monday morning. That came from a directive from Southwest Power Pool to keep the whole grid from collapsing.

Washburn says customers saw their electric heat reduced for 6 minutes twice in the hour. “We've done a follow up on this and there was very little effect to the members’ temperature in their house.”

Customers can help by lowering their energy use during 5-7 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. That includes lowering their thermostat and not running the dishwasher.

6:12 p.m. – Bill advances that would prohibit decision-making based on vaccination history
Iowa legislators have advanced a bill that would prohibit employers, health care centers, insurers and schools from making decisions based on someone’s vaccination history.

Legislators in the Senate subcommittee on Human Resources advanced the bill, which would prohibit people who decide not to be vaccinated from facing repercussions, such as getting fired from their job. It would also allow for parents to oppose vaccinating their children for school based on personal beliefs.

Shanda Burke is a lobbyist with Informed Choice Iowa, a group that opposes mandating vaccines. She says she faced backlash as a medical assistant for refusing to get a flu shot. “No other health decisions are like that, you know, blood pressure, medication or anything like that. It's completely up to you, between you and your doctor and not between you and your employer. And I believe that's definitely something that should be protected, because I've seen it not be protected.”

Lena Tucker Reinders is the executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association. She opposed the bill, saying Iowa already has religious and medical exemptions for vaccinations. And misinformation spreads fast on social media. “The problem is that misinformation and false data can be shared with thousands with only a click. That information doesn't have to be accurate. So social media isn't held the same standards as peer review, as scientific studies is.”

The number of people who refuse vaccines increases when more exemptions are allowed.

2:30 p.m. – UI athletics department fights Title IX challenge to reinstate women’s swimming and diving team
The University of Iowa Athletics Department is continuing to fight a Title Nine IX challenge brought by members of the women’s swimming and diving team. The school announced Monday it will fully reinstate the program, which was set to be dissolved at the end of the year due to pandemic-related budget cuts. The lawsuit prompted the change, though Athletics Director Gary Barta says the school doesn’t agree with the student athletes’ claims.

“We’ve been committed to being in Title IX compliance, we’ll remain committed to being in Title IX compliance. So again, there are differences of opinion in…that have come up through this lawsuit. That resolution…the attorneys will continue to work through it,” he said.

In December, a federal judge ordered the school to maintain the program while the lawsuit moves forward.

1:41 p.m. – GOP senators advance bill to require parental consent for kids to learn about gender identity
Republicans on a Senate panel have advanced a bill that would require parental consent for elementary school students to learn about gender identity. Daniel Sunne is a lobbyist for The Family Leader, the only group registered in favor of the bill.

“SF167 offers elementary and middle school children some protection from indoctrination by gender theory activists, undermining parental teaching, and ignoring biological reality,” he said.

Opponents say inclusive instruction can lead to less bullying and better mental health and academic outcomes for transgender students. They say undermining those lessons would reverse that progress. Eight republican senators co-sponsored the bill. It advances to the Senate Education Committee.

11:45 a.m. – Grassley to invite White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy to Iowa
Iowa’s senior U.S. senator says he’s inviting a top climate official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit the state. Republican Chuck Grassley says the advisor made a comment on climate resilience he called “disturbing.”

White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said at a recent policy forum that “we have to get the middle of the country understanding and active on climate. We have to show them what resilience looks like.”

Grassley says it’s unclear to him if she was pointing fingers specifically at the Midwest. But he called it “disturbing” to think that Iowans need to be educated about global warming. Grassley says he’ll include Biden and other cabinet members on the invitation.

10:00 a.m. - 508 new COVID-19 cases, 26 more deaths reported Tuesday

8:10 a.m. – NWS to start sending emergency alerts to cell phones
Beginning in April, the National Weather Service will start sending out emergency alerts to cell phones ahead of the strongest severe thunderstorms. These messages would give more notice for storms like last August’s derecho, which packed hurricane-force winds and caught many Iowans off guard.

The alerts will be similar to those already issued for flash flood and tornado warnings. The change was under consideration before the derecho, a storm which highlighted critical gaps in emergency communications.

8:09 a.m. – State's new allocation policy creates confusion, frustration for some counties
State officials say they have made no changes to a new policy that would pause vaccine delivery for five Iowa counties. That’s causing confusion for some affected counties.

Last week, state officials announced that five counties didn’t meet the state’s new requirement to administer 80 percent of their first doses before receiving their next allocation.

Buchanan County was one of them. Health Department Director Tai Burkhart says learning the county would not get its 400 dose allocation this week was one of the hardest things she’s experienced in her career.

Burkhart says the governor’s office informed her on Monday that the county could use its 360 booster doses as primary doses, and it would replace them by the end of this week.

State officials say that they are confident all counties will resume their normal allocations next week.

Monday, February 15

3:54 p.m. – Republicans on Senate panel advance bill to require extra checks for food assistance, public aid
Republicans on a Senate panel have advanced a bill that would require the state to conduct extra checks of Iowans’ eligibility for food assistance and other types of public aid.

The Department of Human Services would have to get a computer system to do more searches to check the income and assets of Iowans receiving or applying for public assistance. DHS would give Iowans 10 days to respond to any discrepancies, and then could terminate benefits if they don’t respond.

Several groups say they’re opposed to the bill because it’ll put a bigger burden on families who are already struggling during the pandemic. John Boller is executive director of the Coralville Community Food Pantry.

“More Iowans than ever before are turning to our food pantries, our churches, and our private nonprofits for help right now. Public assistance programs are critical in getting Iowans extra help that food pantries and churches simply cannot provide,” he said.

The two Republican senators who voted for the bill say it’ll make DHS more efficient and ensure resources are going to the people who truly need them. A DHS representative says the bill would impede their ongoing efforts to improve eligibility checks.

1:31 p.m. - Bill would create possibility for parole for Iowans serving life in prison
State lawmakers heard testimony Monday on a bill that would create the possibility of parole for some Iowans serving a life sentence. Currently, those convicted of the most serious Class A felonies can only be released by a pardon or commutation by the governor.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Terry Baxter (R-Garner) would create a review process for certain cases after 25 years

“When someone commits a crime under the influence of alcohol or drugs or coming from a background of abuse themselves, they’re not in their right mind. There are many people who in the process of being incarcerated go through such a change in their life, rehabilitation and transformation, they are no longer the same people…that committed that crime,” he said.

Under the bill a committee would review the cases and make recommendations based on factors that contributed to the crime and the individual’s efforts at rehabilitation.

10:00 a.m. - 206 new COVID-19 cases, one more death reported Monday

8:13 a.m. - Extreme cold delays return to classroom for some schools
As of Monday, K-12 schools in Iowa must offer 100 percent in-person instruction for families that want it, although frigid temperatures have put off the first day for some districts.

That includes Des Moines Public Schools, which is taking a virtual day for the weather, but around 20,000 students will return fully in-person this week. That’s about 5 percent more than under the district’s hybrid learning plan.

Courtney Starbuck says she’s glad her fifth grade class in Des Moines will get back to a normal routine. But she says she’s worried about the coronavirus spreading because desks in her room will be only 3 to 4 feet apart. Starbuck says she feels fortunate to have had her first round of a coronavirus vaccine.

That has brought me a huge peace of mind for myself. So it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t have been given our vaccinations and then I know teachers would have been totally willing to see our kids in person,” she said.

Teachers are a priority in the latest phase of COVID-19 vaccinations in Iowa, although supplies remain short. According to Des Moines schools, approximately half of the district’s 5,000 staff members have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Sunday, February 14

10:00 a.m. - 1,105 new cases, 13 deaths reported this weekend in Iowa

On Saturday, 647 cases and 13 deaths were reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health.