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State Reports 64 Additional Deaths, More Than 11,000 New Cases Of COVID-19 In The Past Week

Daily Digest

Thursday, September 16

2:57 p.m. – Iowa’s nonpublic schools still have to follow the state’s ban on mask mandates

Nonpublic schools in Iowa still have to follow the state’s ban on mask mandates. That’s according to letters sent out by the Catholic Dioceses of Des Moines and Sioux City and a Catholic school this week.

This comes after a federal judge has temporarily blocked the enforcement of the state’s ban on mask requirements in schools. The Diocese of Des Moines letter states that the judge’s ruling applied only to public schools. A similar letter was sent out by Saint Cecilia School in Dubuque.

Officials say they will continue to encourage mask wearing, frequent handwashing and other prevention strategies.

Updated 3:16 p.m.

2:37 p.m. - New district maps could mean big changes for Iowans

Iowa’s nonpartisan legislative services agency has released its first proposal for new political boundaries. If the maps are approved by lawmakers, they will make significant changes to the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

The proposed maps would put Linn and Johnson counties together in a new 1st Congressional District in the southeast corner of the state. The 2nd District would stretch from northeast Iowa into central and southeast Iowa and would include Ames. The 3rd District would keep Des Moines and its suburbs in a south-central district, while the 4th District would cover western Iowa and nearly half the state.

If these maps are approved, about 50 state lawmakers would be drawn into districts with fellow incumbents. That means they’d have to retire, move or run against each other.

“No one’s putting up for sale signs at this point,” says Iowa Democratic Party Chair and state Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames. “We’re still at the beginning of the process.”

Wilburn says he’s planning to vote yes on the maps because they appear to meet the requirements of Iowa law.

The state has scheduled three public hearings about the maps for next week.

12:13 p.m. – Student bodies at Iowa community colleges are becoming more diverse

Community colleges in Iowa are preparing for a more diverse student body.

Des Moines Area Community College noticed fewer students enrolling when COVID-19 first hit Iowa. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, Shelli Allen, the vice president for enrollment services and student success at DMACC, says she is looking forward to seeing a spike in enrollment among students of color.

“I think, as a sector, we lost a lot of ground last year with students of color. And my hope is that we can regain that in the next year or two in terms of teaching them how to come back.”

Between 2019 and 2020, Iowa hit a record number of racial and ethnic minority students enrolling in community colleges. Allen attributes this to the state’s growing diversity overall. And she says community colleges can still do better at recruiting students of color.

“In Iowa, what we're seeing is that we're increasing in terms of diversity, both from our populations that are just in the area, but also we've seen a huge increase in refugee populations. And so being able to serve those students will result in an increase for all of us.”

10 a.m. - Iowa may receive 695 Afghan evacuees for resettlement

Iowa is expected to receive 695 Afghan evacuees from the first group of arrivals to be resettled in the United States.

The Biden administration on Wednesday began notifying governors and state refugee coordinators across the country about how many of the nearly 37,000 arrivals from that first wave are slated to be resettled in their states.

“They will be going to the major populated areas of the state where there are resources and jobs and support systems for them,” said Alex Carfrae, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Those would include places such as the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids metro areas, he said.

The Iowa Department of Human Services said in a statement that it is working closely with several agencies to coordinate the resettlement of Afghan refugees in Iowa.

“Our state has a long history of welcoming refugees from all over the world, and the Department’s Bureau of Refugee Services is eager to help coordinate the arrival of the newest Iowans. Our resettlement partners have the capacity to settle approximately 350 people in the short term,” according to the statement.

The agency said it is working to prepare for the new arrivals, including coordinating with the business community and employers as well as with faith-based and community service organizations.

Entry via the Associated Press

7 a.m. – Sioux City won’t bring back mask mandate

One of the largest school districts in Iowa won’t bring back a mask mandate.

The Sioux City school board met for more than two hours this Wednesday afternoon to discuss restoring a district-wide mask mandate after a federal judge blocked the enforcement of a state ban on requiring masks in schools.

Board member Monique Scarlett made a motion to require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks in all district buildings, but the motion died after no board member seconded it.

Wednesday, September 15

4:40 p.m. - Jill Biden encourages lawmakers to extend expanded child tax credits during Iowa visit

First Lady Jill Biden was in the Des Moines area Wednesday, pushing lawmakers to extend expanded federal child tax credits as part of a $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan working through Congress.

The credits passed earlier this year in the American Rescue Plan provide families monthly payments up to $300 per child.

In an appearance with 3rd District Rep. Cindy Axne at DMACC in Ankeny, Biden said the payments support economic recovery. “This is infrastructure and investing in working families is the best way that we are going to recover from this pandemic.”

More than 340,000 Iowa families qualify for the child tax credits.

Biden and Axne also promoted provisions that would provide universal preschool and increase childcare access.

2:56 p.m. - Annual report finds that Iowa’s rates of obesity in adults jumped from 2019 to 2020

A new report has found Iowa is one of 16 states with an adult obesity rate above 35 percent.

The annual report by the nonprofit Trust For America’s Health found Iowa’s rates of obesity in adults significantly jumped from 2019 to 2020.Dara Lieberman is with Trust For America’s Health. She says the shift in many people’s daily routines and reported decrease in physical activity during the pandemic may have contributed to the increase.

“We have seen several studies come out in the last year, including surveys of adults nationwide, that showed a large proportion of adults with unwanted weight gain and in some, some cases very significant weight gain.”36 percent of adult Iowans were considered obese last year. This means it’s tied with Delaware for the seventh highest rate in the country.

Lieberman says obesity rates differed along racial lines due to social and economic factors, with Black Iowans having higher rates than white and Latino Iowans.

“In Iowa, if you're a Black adult, you have a higher risk of poverty and a lack of insurance. So those also put people at risk for obesity.”Lieberman says lawmakers need to push for more resources to be invested in combating obesity, and that obesity is linked to an increased risk for many conditions like diabetes, heart disease and even getting severely ill from COVID-19.

1:13 p.m. - State reports 64 additional deaths, more than 11,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the past week
The number of new COVID-19 infections continues to rise in Iowa. State health officials are reporting that more than 11,000 new cases have been confirmed in the past week.

Nearly 30 percent of the new cases are reported to be in children 17 and under.

The state is reporting that 578 Iowans are currently hospitalized with the virus. That’s the same number as last week. And 78 percent of those hospitalized are not fully vaccinated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 62 percent of Iowans 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and all 99 of Iowa’s counties have high levels of community spread.

1:09 p.m. - On the Senate Floor, Ernst honors Omaha man who was killed in Afghanistan

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst honored the life of Marine Corporal Daegen Page on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Page was among 13 U.S. service members killed last month in a terrorist bombing outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Ernst called Page a hero who’d lived a life of service. She asked people to keep his family in mind. “The wounds of war obviously aren’t just borne by the warrior. It is the family of the fallen who will carry these scars for a lifetime.”

Page was 23 years old, and had lived in Red Oak, Iowa as a child, before growing up in Omaha.

There’s a public visitation for Page Thursday evening at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Omaha. A funeral is scheduled for Friday morning at the same church.

12:06 p.m. - Second inmate convicted of killing staff at Anamosa Penitentiary sentenced to two life terms without parole

The second inmate convicted of killing two staff members at the Anamosa State Penitentiary will spend the rest of his life in prison.

At a hearing Wednesday, Michael Dutcher pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two life terms without the possibility of parole.

Dutcher and his co-defendant Thomas Woodard admitted to killing nurse Lorena Schulte and correctional officer Robert McFarland during a failed escape attempt.

At the hearing, McFarland’s wife, Sara McFarland, said her life has been forever changed. “I miss him laying next to me at night, talking about how our days went. And you took that from me. There is a lot about Robert you couldn’t take from us. Our love from him. The fact that he was always our hero. He was a hero in life and he died a hero.”

Dutcher is slated to serve out his time in the state of Missouri. Woodard pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month.

7 a.m. – Ankeny school board to schedule another meeting regarding mask mandates

The Ankeny school board will schedule another meeting to decide how to respond to a federal judge’s ruling this week blocking enforcement of Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates.

Ankeny is one of 10 districts named in the lawsuit brought by parents of children vulnerable to the coronavirus.

An overflow crowd attended a special meeting Tuesday night, during which school board members learned more about the ruling from the district’s attorney.

Dozens of people who oppose universal masking rallied outside the district office holding signs that said “Let us choose,” and “One size does not fit all.”

7 a.m. - Iowa City schools reinstate mask mandate

The Iowa City Community School District became the latest to reinstate a mask mandate during a board meeting Tuesday night. The requirement goes into effect Wednesday, as do mandates in the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines school systems.

At the meeting in Iowa City, the parents who spoke were overwhelmingly in support of the mandate. “My kid is scared to go to school,” said parent Brook Easton. “I’ve had enough. And so has he. He’s 11 years old!”

The changes come after a federal ruling this week blocked enforcement of the state ban on mandating masks in schools. Iowa is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over its ban. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said universal masking is key to keeping schools safe.

7 a.m. - Republican Mike Bousselot wins special election for state House seat

Republican Mike Bousselot has won a special election for state House of Representatives District 37, covering part of Ankeny and a northern section of Polk County.

Unofficial results show he got about 52 percent of the vote, and Democrat Andrea Phillips got about 48 percent of the vote.

Gov. Kim Reynolds appointed Bousselot to be director of the state Department of Management, but the Senate didn’t confirm his appointment. He resigned from the position last month. Bousselot was also former Gov. Terry Branstad’s chief of staff.

The special election was called after Republican Rep. John Landon died in July. Phillips ran against Landon for this seat in 2020 but lost.

Another special statehouse election has been scheduled for October 12th in a district covering Newton and most of Jasper County.

Tuesday, September 14

3 p.m. - Special election will decide who represents suburb of Ankeny

Voters in the fast-growing suburb of Ankeny will elect a new representative Tuesday, filling a House seat left vacant after the incumbent died in July.

Republican Mike Bousselot and Democrat Andrea Phillips are competing for the House District 37 seat that was held by Republican Rep. John Landon until his death. The winner will hold office until the general election in November 2022.

Bousselot, 38, served roles in the administrations of former Gov. Terry Branstad and current Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Phillips, 47, has served as an official in the Iowa Democratic Party and worked as director of marketing for a company in China. Phillips also ran for the House seat in 2020 and lost to Landon.

Ankeny has seen the most rapid growth in Iowa and is among the fastest-growing cities nationally. Besides Ankeny, the district includes some rural areas of Polk County.

Republicans hold a 58-to-40 majority in the House, so the winner of the race won’t change the GOP’s control of the chamber.

Entry via the Associated Press

2:50 p.m. - Amazon looking to hire more workers at its Iowa locations

Amazon is announcing plans to hire more than 1,000 workers across its Iowa locations, part of a national hiring blitz to fill 125,000 new positions.

Dave Bozeman, Amazon’s vice president of operations, says immediate openings are being posted Tuesday in communities including Des Moines and Iowa City. While Iowa employers in an array of industries express difficulty finding qualified workers to fill open positions, Bozeman predicts the online retailer’s salary and benefits will be a strong lure. “Average pay is going to be $18 an hour, up to $22.50 in certain areas,” Bozeman says. “They’re going to come with fantastic benefits on day one, health benefits, vision, dental, 401-K.”

In December, Amazon opened its fulfillment center near Des Moines in Bondurant, which employs several hundred people. The facility boasts being able to process up to 950,000 packages a day. The company also has delivery stations in Iowa City, Des Moines and Grimes, with a warehouse in Ankeny and another warehouse under construction in Council Bluffs.

Bozeman says there are a host of full- and part-time openings.

“It’s going to be across the entire network, so it’s going to be within our fulfillment center warehouses, it’s going to be in our sortation centers in which they’re sorting the product,” Bozeman says. “It’s also going to be within our delivery stations as well.” The company is already offering same-day delivery on some products in parts of Iowa.

“We’re going to continue to grow our same-day delivery as well as our normal network and these jobs will only staff and fuel that,” Bozeman says. “We feel good about our same-day delivery. It’s an awesome thing for customers and that’s what we do.”

In July, Amazon announced it’s building a 640,000 square foot fulfillment center in Davenport that will employ 1,000 people full-time when it opens. The company is offering sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000 in some locations, but it’s unclear if any are in Iowa.

Entry via Radio Iowa

1:47 p.m. - DNR analysis finds that the 2020 derecho damaged or destroyed 7 million of Iowa’s trees

Last year’s powerful derecho storm damaged or destroyed an estimated 7 million trees across Iowa. That’s according to a new analysis released by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The storm decimated Iowa’s forests, mangling some of the state’s oldest and most majestic trees.

Nick McGrath is a community disaster recovery coordinator, hired by the DNR and the nonprofit Trees Forever.

He spoke with IPR in July about statewide efforts to replant after the storm. “I think this does provide a really, again, sad but unique opportunity to replant for resiliency. So taking a look at what is left after the storm and maybe those species are what we should be focusing on.”

According to the DNR, the derecho damage to the urban tree canopy alone amounts to 20 million dollars a year in lost benefits.

12:16 p.m. - Iowa Supreme Court gives state lawmakers the go ahead to vote on new district boundaries

The Iowa Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will allow state lawmakers to proceed with voting on new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts.

Wednesday is the deadline set by the Iowa Constitution for the governor to enact new maps that reflect population shifts in the state. But the release of Census data was delayed during the pandemic, making it impossible for the state to meet that deadline. Missing the deadline sent redistricting powers to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen signed an order that gives lawmakers and the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) permission to carry out the typical redistricting process by December 1.

Derek Mulleris a law professor at the University of Iowa. “I think the Supreme Court, rightly, is being minimally disruptive in the process. And so it’ll play out in Iowa like it’s played out for the last 40, 50 years.”

The LSA plans to release a first set of maps Thursday. Three public hearings about the maps are scheduled for next week.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has scheduled a special legislative session to begin October 5, when the legislature will meet to either approve or reject the first set of maps.

Updated 2:47 p.m.

10:30 a.m. - ISU suspends Crew Club, releases overview of investigations following March drownings

Both reviews launched this spring after two members of Iowa State University’s Crew Club drowned during rowing practice have found all sports clubs for ISU students lack effective oversight.

Iowa State officials have released what’s described as an overview of external and internal investigations. It concludes several ISU Crew Club safety procedures were not followed when members went rowing on Little Wall Lake in late March and their boat capsized on a windy day. ISU Crew Club activities are suspended for at least the current academic year while the group is reorganized and new health and safety rules for its activities are established.

The reviews also found deficiencies in how health and safety policies for all university sports clubs were followed and there had been no consistent oversight by the university. Iowa State officials say by the end of January, the roles and authority of ISU administrators and all sports club advisors will be more clearly defined. Additional safety training will be required for students in sports clubs that are considered of moderate or high risk.

When the ISU Crew Club’s boat capsized in March, three students were rescued. ISU sophomore Yaakov Ben-David, who was 20, and Derek Nanni, a 19 year old freshman, drowned.

Entry via Radio Iowa

7 a.m. - Some Iowa school districts immediately reinstate mask mandates following judge’s ruling

Some of Iowa’s largest school districts are taking immediate steps to implement mask mandates, in response to a federal court ruling Monday. A judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the state’s mask mandate ban while a lawsuit plays out.

The announcement from Des Moines Public Schools came within hours of the ruling. The district is reinstating its mask requirement, starting Wednesday.

The Iowa City school board will weigh in on a proposed mask requirement at a meeting Tuesday night.

12:30 p.m. Update: Cedar Rapids has announced they’re implementing a mask mandate starting Wednesday.

Monday, September 13

4:43 p.m. – State senate ethics committee votes to dismiss complaints related to ban on mask mandates

The Iowa Senate Ethics Committee voted unanimously Monday to dismiss six complaints related to the state law that bans schools from requiring masks.

The complaints from six Iowans allege Republican senators violated ethics standards when they voted for a law that could put disabled and medically vulnerable students at risk of getting COVID-19.A written response from Senate Republicans says voting for a bill isn’t an ethics violation. No Republican senators talked about the complaints during the ethics committee meeting.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, opposed the law and says she feels for concerned parents. But she agrees it’s not a matter for the ethics committee. “If this was an ethics committee issue, the remedy for this was under the jurisdiction of this committee, I would be like a fly on honey right now. But unfortunately I believe the remedy is really is in a court of law.”

A federal court has blocked the ban on school mask mandates from being enforced. That means Iowa schools can now require mask wearing while the legal challenge continues to play out in court.

4:18 p.m. - Second inmate accused of killing  Anamosa Penitentiary staffers expected to plead guilty

The second inmate accused of killing two staffers at the Anamosa State Penitentiary is expected to plead guilty this week.

Michael Dutcher had been slated to have a bench trial next week, but court filings show he now intends to plead guilty.

Investigators say Dutcher and his co-defendant Thomas Woodard killed a nurse and a correctional officer during a failed escape attempt from the prison in March. Woodard pleaded guilty last month.

Dutcher’s plea hearing and sentencing are scheduled for Wednesday at the Jones County Courthouse.

3:55 p.m. - Federal judge blocks enforcement of Iowa mask mandate ban

The ruling means school districts can choose to require universal masking among students and teachers as recommended by the CDC, but the order is temporary, pending the results of the lawsuit.

The ruling comes as part of a court challenge brought by a group of parents of children with disabilities that make them vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19. In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt cited the “drastic increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among children. He said blocking enforcement of the law is necessary to protect the children in the case from harm.

Before the ruling Monday, the president of the state’s teachers union told reporters he expected some districts to immediately implement a mask mandate, if a judge ruled in their favor.

Iowa State Education Association president] Mike Beranek criticized the ban, which he says puts students at risk. “If a lawsuit were to be brought forward and a decision were…to be made, I’m almost…can guarantee you that there will be districts that will immediately implement a mask mandate in their locals because they see the need to ensure that the spread is reduced.”

Soon after the ruling, the Iowa City school board added an action item on a mask requirement to their Tuesday meeting.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement the ruling ignores the decision of elected lawmakers and takes away parent’s ability to decide whether their children wear masks. She says the state will appeal the decision.

Updated 4:48 p.m.

3:30 p.m. - State reports 8.9% 14-day positivity rate Monday

2:30 p.m. - MercyOne reviewing options after proposed UIHC hospital approved
One of the medical groups opposed to the University of Iowa’s plan for a new hospital in North Liberty is still considering its options.

A statement from the spokesperson for MercyOne Health says they are disappointed the State Health Facilities Council reversed an earlier ruling and approved the UIHC’s request. It says the approval means 13 hospitals will now be serving Iowa City and the surrounding communities, creating unnecessary cost and competition at a time when all of Iowa’s health care entities should be working together.

The statement says MercyOne is considering its next step. Those who opposed the hospital have until the end of the month to appeal the state Facilities Council approval.

Entry via Radio Iowa

11 a.m. - Enrollment falls at all three state universities

Fall enrollment is down at the three state universities.

The University of Northern Iowa has been trying to get its numbers back up for several years. Vice President for enrollment, Kristin Woods, says they do have more new students coming in. “Our new freshman class for fall 2021 is 1,554 students. And that is an increase over last year by about five percent,” she says. “Overall, our enrollment is 9,231, and that is down about 291 students from last year.”

In-person classes are back after going online for a time during the pandemic. Woods says they aren’t sure how the pandemic impacted enrollment. “That’s something we are still learning about and continuing to dig into. We do know that it had an impact on our international enrollment,” Woods says. She says things haven’t gotten back to normal for international students.

“Students continued to have challenges to obtaining visas and that was tied to student’s often inability to get visa appointments with embassy closures and so on. So, that certainly has had a continued impact on international enrollment.”

While the overall enrollment is down slightly, she says there are positives. She says they are excited about the increase in the size of the freshman class and the record graduation rates — with one-in-14 students graduating in three years.

Iowa State’s fall enrollment is 30,708 — which is down by 1,117 students. The university saw a 6 percent increase in new first-year students The University of Iowa’s total enrollment is 31,206, down 394 from fall 2020. Iowa has 4,521 first-year students, up 11 from fall 2020.

Entry via Radio Iowa

8 a.m. - Hospitals in Iowa’s 2nd-largest city limiting procedures

Hospitals in Iowa’s second-largest city are limiting elective procedures because of increased numbers of patients driven partly by a surge in COVID-19 admissions.

Both UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital and Mercy Medical Center confirmed Friday their facilities are preserving capacity because of high patient counts in recent weeks, The Cedar Falls Gazette reports.

Cedar Rapids hospitals had not delayed or postponed elective surgeries and procedures since last fall.

St. Luke’s is limiting surgeries that require a hospital stay to 10 per day.

“We continue to assess the situation daily as it remains a very fluid situation,” St. Luke’s spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo said in an email.

Mercy also is temporarily reducing the number of elective procedures that require hospital stays after surgery, officials confirmed.

“It is a day-to-day decision based on census and affects only procedures that do not need to be done within the next four to six weeks,” Mercy spokesman Mark Wehr said in an email.

The announcement comes as coronavirus cases, largely driven by the highly contagious delta variant, have surged in the past month across the state. All 99 Iowa counties are currently experiencing high community transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Entry via the Associated Press

7 a.m. - Iowa Supreme Court oral arguments resume this week

The Iowa Supreme Court returns to oral arguments this week by revisiting a case where a jury found the Iowa Department of Corrections discriminated against a transgender employee.

State attorneys are appealing a 2019 verdict awarding Jesse Vroegh $120,000 for sex and gender discrimination.

Vroegh was not allowed to use the men’s locker room while working as a nurse at the women’s prison in Mitchellville. He was also denied coverage for a gender transition surgery under the state’s health plan.

The state argues that the jury instructions were biased against the Department of Corrections and that the judge left out evidence that could have changed the verdict. State attorneys are asking for a new trial or for the case to be dismissed.

The Vroegh case is one of fourteen that will go before the Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday and Thursday.