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State reports 86 additional deaths, 10,643 new cases of COVID-19 this week

Daily Digest

Wednesday, November 24

1:59 p.m. - The creator of the “1619 Project” visits alma mater in Waterloo

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones made a homecoming to her alma mater Waterloo West High School Tuesday night.

She described riding the bus to Waterloo West as part of a school desegregation plan and watching the neighborhoods change on her way to a whiter, wealthier part of the city.

She called it part of her education on racial inequality.

“That’s why I do the work that I do and I don’t think I would have seen the world in the same way had I not had what was often a very difficult experience but it was an experience that really raised me to question.”

Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, which was recently expanded into a book. The project focuses on the legacy of slavery to explain the history of racial inequality in the United States. In last legislative session, Republican lawmakers proposed banning it from school curriculum.

Asked about the controversy around the project, Hannah-Jones said understanding history from a Black perspective is necessary to move past racial divisions. “People are afraid if we have an honest reckoning with our country that somehow our country won’t withstand it. I think our country is not going to withstand it if we don’t have an honest reckoning. We have to own up to what happened, and then we have to try and make it right.”

Hannah-Jones shared the stage with Reverend Ray Dial, the former high school teacher who encouraged her to learn about Black history. He also supported her interest in journalism, letting her print an underground school newspaper in the faculty office.

Hannah-Jones is founding an after school program in Waterloo focused on literacy and teaching Black history. She said the 1619 Freedom School is set to open in January.

3 p.m. - Omaha Nation Public School students join memorial march for Native children

Northwest Iowa tribes marched throughout Sioux City Wednesday morning to remember children separated from their families and placed into the foster care system.

It was the first year that Omaha Nation Public School students marched the three miles through Sioux City in honor of lost children.

Jarius Harlan is a senior at the school. He came up with the idea to attend the march when he learned about the event in his tribal government class.

“This is very important for us children and our people and younger generations ahead of us. People need to come to the realization that Natives are here. And that we’re going to stay for a very long time.”

Organizers stressed the amount of progress that has been made since the march’s inception in 2002. The memorial march first began 19 years ago as a protest against the treatment of Natives by the Department of Human Services. But, now organizers say the focus is on healing.

Many leaders say they look to the tribes’ young people to carry on the work.

This year, over 200 native children have been put into foster care throughout the state of Iowa.

12:36 p.m. - Community-based groups continue work encouraging immigrants in Iowa to get vaccinated

COVID-19 outreach in Spanish and for immigrant communities from the state health department has leveled off, according to some advocates. Some community-based Spanish language campaigns in Iowa have seen some successes where the state hasn’t reached.

The COVID-19 vaccine campaign “Por Mi Famila” or For My Family has seen some success in overcoming vaccine barriers in its home state of Wisconsin. The advocates there contacted some Iowa community leaders to see if they’ll follow in their footsteps, and Toni Roberston was one of the people who said yes. She’s with the League of United Latin American Citizens in Davenport.

She says their first clinic was successful, which is a good sign, she says, because outreach from the state isn’t all there. “I personally, don't really see that it really has opened any doors wide to bring in the immigrant community.”

The Davenport league will have another clinic Dec. 5 and has the capacity to continue hosting as long as there is community need.

11:18 a.m. - State reports 86 additional deaths, 10,643 new cases of COVID-19 this week

Heading into the Thanksgiving weekend, Iowa state health officials are reporting 10,643 new COVID-19 infections have been confirmed in the past week.

That’s as the state’s 14-day test positivity rate continues to increase. On Wednesday, it was reported to be 10.4 percent, up from 9.7 percent the previous week.

22 percent of the new confirmed infections were in children 17 and under.

623 Iowans are hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 544 last week. This is the third week in a row hospitalizations have been on the rise.

In the past week, an additional 86 Iowans were confirmed to have died from COVID-19. This brings the state’s total death count to 7,354.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, all 99 of Iowa’s counties have high or substantial levels of community spread.

9:30 a.m. - Thanksgiving turkeys should be plentiful – but more expensive – this year.

Thanksgiving turkey prices are running about 24 percent higher than last year.

Economists at the Farm Bureau say that’s thanks to supply chain issues and inflation.

Veronica Nigh is one of those economists. She says grocery stores themselves also have some control over the selling price of turkey – and that if you’ve procrastinated on buying your bird, you’re in luck!

“Usually, Thanksgiving pricing specials on turkey begins several weeks before Thanksgiving. And what we found this year is those promotional prices didn’t start until closer to Thanksgiving.”

The Department of Agriculture assures that despite the higher price of turkey, there’s no shortage of birds this year.

Entry via Harvest Public Media

9 a.m. - Western Iowa farmer Dave Muhlbauer ends U.S. Senate campaign

A western Iowa farmer who announced in late May that he planned to run for the U.S. Senate in 2022 has ended his campaign.

Dave Muhlbauer of Manilla is a former Crawford County Supervisor who describes himself as an old-school farmer-labor Democrat. His father and grandfather were state legislators.

Muhlbauer’s nephew died in an accident earlier this year, and Muhlbauer says the tragedy has had a devastating effect on his family. Muhlbauer says after a period of reflection with his family and close friends, he has decided he cannot continue his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Muhlbauer was the first Democrat to announce that they hoped to challenge Republican Chuck Grassley’s bid for an eighth term in the U.S. Senate. Former Iowa Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer of Cedar Rapids, retired Admiral Michael Franken of Sioux City, Dr. Glenn Hurst of Minden and Bob Krauss, who has run unsuccessfully three times before, all say they intend to seek the Democratic Party’s 2022 nomination for the U.S. Senate.

Entry via Radio Iowa

Tuesday, November 23

4:04 p.m. – Sioux City school district pauses talks with outside agency to address shortage substitute teachers

The Sioux City Community School District voted to break off talks with an outside agency that assists with substitute teacher shortages. The board decided to suspend the discussion for 90 days.

Beth Armstrong, who substitute teaches in the district, opposed the use of the staffing agency. She says she’s worried about how the partnership would impact her state retirement benefits, known as IPERS.

“I can tell you that you will lose subs if you switch to this company. I’ll go to Hinton, I’ll go to Sergeant Bluff, I’ll do something, because we don’t want to lose our IPERS.”

The board members will look to higher compensation rates again to compete with nearby school districts.

Other district leaders worry that breaking off talks with the staffing agency will only delay help for teachers struggling. Superintendent Paul Gausman says over 83 percent of qualified administrators are already acting as substitutes.

3:49 p.m. – Teenagers accused of killing Spanish teacher request release ahead of trial

The teenagers accused of killing a beloved high school Spanish teacher in Fairfield were back in court Tuesday, asking to be released ahead of trial.

Jeremy Goodale and Willard Miller each face a first degree murder charge in the killing of Nohema Graber, whose body was found in a city park earlier this month.

The 16-year-olds both requested their bonds be reviewed. Prosecutor Scott Brown argued in court Tuesday that based on the factors in the case, bond should be kept at $1 million each or even raised to $2 million.

“Number one, the investigation in this case has revealed that the defendant, along with the codefendant, has engaged in an extremely brutal murder of an innocent person.”

Judge Joel Yates said he’ll review the matter and plans to issue written rulings next week.

2:46 p.m. – Reynolds is confident she can provide justification for relief funding spent on staff salaries

Gov. Kim Reynolds says she feels confident she can provide justification to the federal government for spending nearly half a million dollars of pandemic relief funding on her staff last spring.

State Auditor Rob Sand released a report last week that accuses Reynolds of improperly using federal pandemic relief money to pay 21 staff salaries for a few months, and he accuses her of hiding it by listing it as a different department’s expense.

Reynolds says her staff was working on COVID-19 issues “100 percent of the time” last spring.

“Treasury…has said that it is an allowable expense. We just need to provide the documentation, and we’re working on that right now.”

The staffers Reynolds paid were employed by her office before the pandemic started.

Reynolds already had to return $21 million of CARES Act funding after the feds determined she improperly used it for a human resources software upgrade.

2:28 p.m. – Native American communities will march in Sioux City for the 19th annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children

Native communities will march through Sioux City Friday to memorialize children removed from their homes and put into the foster care system.

The 19th annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children began this week with educational sessions on Native traditions.

Manape LaMere is one of the march’s organizers. He says he wants to educate more non-Native families on how to raise a American Indian child. “Our hope is that one day Sioux City could potentially be a hub for maybe all the state foster parents that might need to take themselves or their children; somewhere for them to all learn.”

Terry Medina says the community will focus on healing from historical traumas. “And even doing the March, we’ve had non-Natives attack us verbally, cussing, yelling. And so now we pray for him. We don't try to get revenge. It's all about trying to be forgiving.”

Activists say there’s been progress in keeping Native children with their families, but there’s still work to be done.

There is an urgent need for Native foster families in Woodbury County, according to Lutheran Services of Iowa. LaMere says the community needs to keep Native culture alive for each of these children.

The Department of Human Services reported 143 active Native children cases for the western Iowa region in October alone.

1:01 p.m. – Johnston teacher resigns following criticism from lawmakers over posters supporting LGBTQ+ groups, racial justice movements

A Johnston teacher says he is resigning at the end of the year due to the politicization of some subjects.

Neal Patel is a physical science teacher in the Johnston Community School District. WHO-TV reports he hung up posters in his classroom, he says, to try to create a welcoming environment. Patel chose flags that represent LGBTQ+ communities and racial justice movements. He says he has since been criticized by Iowa legislators for doing so. Patel says even though he loves working with his students, he does not want to work in such a frustrating environment.

12:04 p.m. - Reynolds says the state is in a better position to deal with COVID than this time last year

As Iowa’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been increasing going into Thanksgiving, Gov. Kim Reynolds is highlighting that Iowa is in a better position than last year.

This time last year, hospitalizations were near their highest point in the pandemic, and hospitals were full. Reynolds says now, vaccines are available and hospitalizations are lower than last year’s peak.

“When you take a look at where we were last year, we were at almost 1,500 and so it’s around 597 right now or in that ballpark. We still have, you know, a good chunk of Iowans that have been vaccinated, fully vaccinated, our numbers continue to go up. So that’s positive.”

Reynolds says she’s encouraging Iowans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 “if they want to” and that Iowans should also get a flu shot. She says she got a flu shot, and hasn’t yet gotten a COVID-19 booster but plans to get one.

Health experts in the state are concerned a bad flu season and increasing COVID-19 spread will overburden the already strained health care system. They’re encouraging Iowans to get vaccinated and meet in well ventilated spaces, along with using other public health precautions.

8 a.m. - Cattle producers hope bipartisan bills introduced in Congress will make buying and selling cattle fair for independent producers

Beef prices are rising at the grocery store, but Iowa cattle producers aren’t getting what they feel their cattle are worth at the market. They’re counting on bipartisan bills introduced by lawmakers in Congress to get more leverage.

Brad Kooima is a cattle feeder and commodity broker from northwest Iowa’s Sioux County. He says he could go weeks without a bid for his cattle from one of the country’s four big meatpackers.

“They get bigger every day, they have to get fed every day. They get sick, okay. And not being able to get a bid for four or five, six weeks at a time, while someone else just because they've got a relationship, they're fine. You know, they're getting along fine. But the independent guy isn't getting along fine.”

But U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has introduced a bill to help those independent producers, and Iowa’s House delegation has introduced a similar one. The bills would create a library that shows the different deals meatpackers are giving producers for their cattle. Producers wouldn’t be able to see who the buyers and sellers are, but they’d see different rates so they can negotiate prices with packers and compete with each other.

Kooima says the library sounds fair and transparent.

8 a.m. – Iowa is in for a severe flu season, experts say

Health experts say early numbers indicate Iowa is in for a much more severe flu season this year.

That’s because fewer people are wearing masks and socially distancing, as compared to last year.

“In general, we wouldn't start to see these numbers until into December. So it is early. And when we see early spread, we worry that it's going to be higher spread.”

Theresa Brennan is the chief medical officer for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She says a severe flu season, along with the high rate of COVID-19 infections, will further strain the health care system.

“I think a healthcare system that's already strapped because of an ongoing pandemic, adding into it, another virus like influenza, which can take away workers, right, they might not need to be hospitalized, but they might get it and have to be out.”

Brennan says Iowans need to be extra cautious this season and get vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu as soon as possible.

Monday, November 22

3:14 p.m. - District court judge says Iowa’s ban on Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming surgery is unconstitutional

A Polk County district court judge has ruled the state’s ban on Medicaid coverage for transgender Iowans’ gender-affirming surgery is unconstitutional.

Republican lawmakers changed the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2019 to block transgender Iowans from having certain surgeries covered by publicly funded health insurance.

Judge William P. Kelly’s ruling says that law and a related Medicaid rule violate the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. And it says the state can no longer use that law to deny coverage to transgender Iowans.

The ACLU of Iowa brought the lawsuit on behalf of Aiden Vasquez and Mika Covington. Iowa Medicaid denied them coverage for surgeries their doctors said were medically necessary. Judge Kelly has ordered the state to reverse the denials.

The ACLU of Iowa’s legal director says it’s “a historic win for civil rights in Iowa.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office disagrees with the ruling and is considering next steps, which could include an appeal.

3:09 p.m. - Hedge fund with a history of cutting jobs bids on Iowa–based newspaper chain

An Iowa-based newspaper chain is facing a buyout bid from a hedge fund that has a history of cutting jobs at other newspapers it has acquired.

Alden Global Capital wants to buy Davenport-based Lee Enterprises, which owns more than 70 newspapers in 26 states. Ten Iowa papers would change hands if the deal goes through, including the Sioux City Journal and Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Kyle Munson is the board president of the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, a nonprofit that supports community newspapers. He says Lee has already cut down on reporters to make up for lost ad revenue. He worries the problem would grow worse under Alden.

“And it makes it harder for these communities to have good, deep investigative reporting or even just some of the human interest stories that make a community a community.”

Alden’s bid for Lee Enterprises is estimated to be worth around $141 million. The deal still must be approved by Lee’s board of directors.

2:27 p.m. - Iowa won’t meet goal of less than 300 traffic deaths in 2021

Iowa officials say they will continue to strive for fewer than 300 annual traffic deaths, but it won’t happen in 2021.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that as of Friday, Iowa traffic death count stood at 312. Iowa Department of Transportation officials say that outpaces the death toll for the same date in the four previous years, but it was below the 350 count by the same time in 2016 — the last year that highway crashes claimed more than 400 lives.

Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau Chief Brett Tjepkes says a safety campaign will continue that urges drivers to slow down, buckle up, drive sober and remain distraction-free heading into the busy Thanksgiving holiday travel period.

State officials cite speeding as a major problem, and the state patrol has been cracking down, issuing more than twice as many tickets in 2020 compared to 2019.

Entry via the Associated Press

12:36 p.m. - Scott County residents continue to speak out against plans to build a new juvenile detention center

Scott County residents continue to plead with local officials to not use pandemic relief funds to build a new juvenile detention center. The Board of Supervisors is plowing ahead with a proposal to more than double the size of the county’s current facility, over objections from local advocates and state officials.

Ann Schwickerath, who leads a youth development nonprofit, urged the board to instead invest in support and rehabilitation.

“Incarcerating juveniles in fact increases recidivism. So, to me, I understand that meaning, it doesn’t help. When you lock kids up, it’s not rehabilitating to them. It’s not helpful to them, and you’re proposing to do more of it.”

Board members said Monday they anticipate using some $7.5 million in pandemic relief funds for the facility. They’ll meet again Tuesday to review design plans.

8 a.m. – More ag guest workers are helping out on Midwestern farms

The Midwest has seen a rise in the number of agricultural guest workers helping out on farms, in meatpacking plants and with landscaping companies. That increase could reflect differences between the Trump and Biden administrations.

The United States is on track to admit more agricultural guest workers than ever before, according to the Department of Labor. Most Midwestern states are on a similar trajectory.

The influx comes as employers who hire through the H-2A visa program are complaining that it’s overly burdensome and expensive.

Alexandra Sossa is the executive director of the Farmworker and Landscaper Advocacy Project in Illinois. She says those employers would be hard pressed to find labor locally.
“It’s hard to find workers here, who are already in the United States, willing to do the work. Because the work is not easy work.”

Sossa says the rise in the number of agricultural workers could be due to perceptions that the Biden administration is more welcoming to immigrants, or the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

Entry via Harvest Public Media

8 a.m. – Public health experts say Iowans should take extra precautions to avoid spreading the coronavirus this Thanksgiving

Iowa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and community transmission rates remain high heading into the Thanksgiving weekend. Public health experts are urging Iowans to take extra precautions this year as they gather with friends and family.

Dan Diekema is an infectious disease specialist with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He says one thing parents should do is get their kids vaccinated, which is important even though they’re at low risk for getting severely ill from COVID-19.

“There can be complications, there can be hospitalizations, but even more, equally or greater importance, is decreasing transmission in that age group because it will help decrease the risk across the population.”

Diekema says Iowans should consider gathering in a well-ventilated space, getting vaccinated and even getting a rapid coronavirus test beforehand to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Some of the rapid at home tests which can be done in 15 minutes, then all the people who are going to attend could do that the morning of an event, and that would also decrease the risk.”

Friday, Nov. 19

1:38 p.m. - State reports 9.9% 14-day coronavirus test positivity rate

12:25 p.m. - Axne says the Build Back Better Act will help to make child care affordable in Iowa, while Republicans criticize the bill as a ‘spending spree’

Iowa Republicans in the U.S. House are criticizing Friday’s passage of the Build Back Better Act as a federal “spending spree.” But the state’s lone Democrat in Congress is promoting the act’s plans to lower the cost of child care.

3rd District Rep. Cindy Axne says out of the dozens of measures in the $2.4 trillion Build Back Better Act, programs to increase child care access were among her top priorities. They include a 7 percent cap on family child care spending. Axne says that means a family making the state’s median income of $68,000 would be expected to pay no more than around $4,700 per year.

“And that 7 percent cap will be in place to help more than 90 percent of Iowa’s families — any family making less than 250 percent of median income, which is most of our families.”

Axne says she expects the bill to be signed by the end of the year, but it still faces a challenge getting past moderate Democrats in the Senate.

10:30 a.m. - Ernst challenger Greenfield named to USDA post in Iowa

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced the appointment of former U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield to serve in a top agriculture position in Iowa.

Greenfield, the Democratic nominee who lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst last November, was named Iowa director of rural development, a position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She will serve as the chief executive officer of the program that offers loans, grants and loan guarantees to help create jobs and support economic development.

The agency helps support rural housing programs and offers funding and support for health care, first responder services, water, electric and communications infrastructure. It also provides technical assistance and information to help agricultural producers and cooperatives get started and improve the effectiveness of their operations.

Greenfield has worked as an urban planner and real estate developer. She became president of the Iowa division of Rottlund Homes in 2007 and most recently served as president of a real estate firm based in Des Moines.

In the 2020 election, Ernst won by more than 110,000 votes, giving her a 6 percentage point margin. The two candidates spent more than $170 million on media as parties and interest groups poured money into the race, one of the costliest in the nation.

Entry via the Associated Press

10 a.m. - Negotiator for Deere workers in Ankeny dies of COVID-19

The lead negotiator for the UAW local that represents employees at John Deere’s plant in Ankeny died of COVID-19 the day after the strike at Deere and Company ended.

Curtis Templeman’s death from COVID-19 was announced late Thursday on the Facebook page for UAW Local 450. The Des Moines Register reports Templeman was hospitalized at the beginning of November, and Templeman told a Register reporter he planned to participate in last week’s contract talks by phone from the hospital.

The union praised Templeman’s “selfless service” during negotiations and said he held on long enough to see the contract with Deere had been ratified.

Entry via Radio Iowa

7 a.m. - Refugee service organization in Urbandale earns nonprofit status

A refugee service organization has earned a nonprofit status to continue supporting refugees and immigrants in and around Urbandale.

Shalom Community Impact Center started out as a small church group made of refugees, but founder and director Eugene Kiruhura says he wanted to reach more people in his community.

“We fled the war from our country, but when we got here, there was a different war. There were different challenges like war. Education — it's a challenge. Job, that's a challenge, the system is a challenge. There are a lot of challenges, which we need to support people.”

As a nonprofit, Shalom Community Impact Center will serve refugees and immigrants from all backgrounds. It provides language, childcare and education services.

7 a.m. - Coe College students rally to say the school must do more to promote diversity

Hundreds of students marched and rallied at Coe College in Cedar Rapids Thursday to protest what they see as a lack of action on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

The group was galvanized by the resignation of a longtime Board of Trustees member, who had criticized the school’s recent presidential search process as lacking diversity.

Faculty member Anthony Kelley protested with the students.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Kelley. “We’re sick and tired of a Board of Trustees composed of mostly wealthy white men who do not reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of our broader campus community. We’re sick and tired of feeling unwelcome.”

In response to the students’ efforts, the school’s president announced he would be meeting one of their demands: identifying a senior staffer to oversee DEI initiatives.