Liveblog: 454 New COVID-19 Cases, 18 More Deaths Reported Friday

In many Iowa counties, businesses and organizations are now deciding when and how to reopen. Summer festivals and events organizations are making decisions around whether or how they will operate, and Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced that she is "shifting focus" of Iowa's coronavirus response.

Follow the latest Iowa coronavirus news here, where we're posting news updates from Gov. Kim Reynolds, other state agencies, counties and businesses for the week of May 17-May 23.

Reviews of testing and contact tracing capacity by NPR show that Iowa has not met the thresholds recommended by health experts to safely relax restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. 

Find the latest updates for the week of May 10-16 here. 

Friday, May 22

5:24 p.m. - Test Iowa site in Woodbury County closes Friday and moves to Sioux County

State Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, says he questions the decision to move the site away from a place that has had such a large COVID-19 outbreak. “If the governor is at the same time promising that every citizen can have access to a test site at the same time she’s moving test sites from population centers, I think it calls into question what their plans are and what rationale they’ve used.”

Hall acknowledges the county still has local testing resources, but says he wants to see reliable data on how many tests were conducted at the Test Iowa site, and the cost.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a news conference that the state is reallocating resources and Woodbury County still has access to testing. A Woodbury County health official says a federally qualified health center has reported doing at least 1,000 tests each week at its drive-thru testing site in Sioux City.  

4:46 p.m. – Some Utilities Can Begin Disconnections May 28

A moratorium on utility shutoffs has kept the lights on even as thousands of Iowans have fallen behind on their bills during the coronavirus crisis. But utility disconnections are slated to resume next week, as state leaders continue easing coronavirus protections and regulations.

According to Iowa Utilities Board records, as of April 30, hundreds of thousands of utility accounts are past due, with millions of dollars owed.

Iowans need to be planning how to pay those accounts down: municipal utilities and electric cooperatives can begin disconnections for electric and gas service beginning on May 28. Investor-owned utilities, which includes MidAmerican Energy, Alliant, Black Hills Energy and Liberty Utilities, can begin the process July 1.

Some water utilities are not subject to the shutoff moratorium, though the IUB has “strongly requested” that those entities suspend disconnections “through the duration of the public health emergency as determined by Gov. Kim Reynolds”.

IUB Member Nick Wagner says disconnections will be phased-in, because so many people have fallen behind on bills.

“Our goal is throughout this whole period is to phase in the approach so that customers who do need help can got get the help without overwhelming the agencies and other areas that can provide support,” Wagner said.

Many more Iowans than usual are struggling to pay their bills, due to the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Wagner added.

“Just because of the situation with the COVID-19, with layoffs, reductions in pay, and some other things that customers may be seeing a situation that they aren’t used to, with not being able to pay their bills,” Wagner said.

Utilities will have to go through a process of formally notifying customers of a shutoff. Iowans with special health conditions and those who have had a household member test positive for COVID-19 must be granted a 30 day extension, according to IUB rules.

More information on getting help paying utility bills is available from the Iowa Department of Human Rights, which works with local community action agencies to secure funding for low-income Iowans. The deadline for income-eligible Iowans to apply for the Low-Income Home Energy Program (LIHEAP) has been extended through June 30.

2:34 p.m. – State to close Sioux City Test Iowa site due to decline in testing

Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a press conference Friday she’s closing the Sioux City Test Iowa site because there’s been a decline in testing there.

Reynolds said closing the site will give the state the opportunity to reallocate resources to other sites and that Woodbury County residents still have other options for testing. “This is one process we're going to have, you can still go to clinics, you can still go to your hospitals. There's a lot of other options that are available for Iowans and when you take a look at that holistically, we're providing incredible testing opportunities for the citizens of Iowa.”

New sites will open in Sioux, Pottawattamie, Des Moines and Marshall counties.

A Test Iowa site in Black Hawk County that was previously scheduled to close Friday will now remain open.  

1:52 p.m. – Iowa reaches highest unemployment figure since the farm crisis of the 1980s

Economic restrictions put in place to slow the coronavirus pushed Iowa’s unemployment rate to 10.2 percent in April, up from just over three percent in March. It’s the highest unemployment figure the state has seen since the farm crisis of the 1980s.

The state lost 177,000 jobs last month according to Iowa Workforce Development. The biggest losses were from businesses like bars and restaurants, which lost nearly half of their payroll when they stopped serving customers in-person. 

Many of those jobs may come back fairly quickly as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. But Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson expects other industries to take longer. So it could be a while before Iowa’s employment rate returns to pre-pandemic levels. “There’s no evidence that it’s going to recover to that level until well into next year, if that.”

Swenson says because trade is so important to the state economy, other states and countries will need to bounce back before Iowa can expect a full recovery.   

11:00 a.m. - Gov. Reynolds hosts press conference 

10:00 a.m. - 454 new, confirmed COVID-19 cases, 18 more deaths reported since 10 a.m. Thursday

State officials are reporting 454 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing Iowa’s total to 16,408.

Eighteen more Iowans have died from the virus, putting the state’s total number of deaths at 418. Those numbers reflect a 24-hour period ending Friday at 10 a.m.

More than 8,800 Iowans have recovered from COVID-19 and 362 are hospitalized.

The state’s coronavirus website will undergo maintenance this weekend, making it unavailable from 6 a.m. on Saturday through 6 a.m. on Monday. This means COVID-19 case counts will not be updated during this period.

Thursday, May 21

5:00 p.m. – Gov. Kim Reynolds to close down two Test Iowa sites in Waterloo and Sioux City

Gov. Kim Reynolds is closing down two Test Iowa sites in hard-hit counties, even as she’s encouraging all Iowans to request a test. 

Sites in Waterloo and Sioux City will be shut down after Friday, a Black Hawk County official told reporters. County Sheriff Tony Thompson says the $26 million Test Iowa program has had little input from local officials and has been plagued by difficulties.

“I don’t know the rubric behind or the methodology behind why those sites are being moved. Particularly in a time when they are opening up the criteria for what and who can be tested and why or how they can be tested. It doesn’t make sense to me that way.”

Black Hawk County officials say it took weeks for them to receive results from the Test Iowa site in Waterloo; the number of tests conducted at the site varied widely from day to day, from 135 on April 30 to just eight tests on May 6.

Linn County officials have also raised concerns about delays in testing results, as well as inconclusive results. Thompson echoed those complaints, calling the Test Iowa program a “quagmire.”

“The timeliness of response, the timeliness of test results, the ability to dig deeper into the data, there’s just been a lot of dysfunction associated with the Test Iowa results and unfortunately that’s something at the state level that’s being very managed and controlled by the governor and the governor’s staff,” he said.

The Waterloo and Sioux City sites will be replaced by sites in Marshall, Pottawattamie and Sioux Counties, according to the state’s online coronavirus dashboard. Reynolds has touted the Test Iowa program as a key tool in enabling the state to manage virus activity while reopening safely.

3:14 p.m. - Iowa Department of Education shares guidance allowing schools to hold classes and activities in person next month if they choose

Starting June 1, schools can reopen for summer classes and activities like science or drama camps. But they must take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus including screening students and staff each day and limiting class sizes to allow for physical distancing.

Ann Lebo, director of the state Department of Education, says summer distance learning is also an option. “Whether a school chooses to provide in-person learning opportunities over the summer is a local decision that should be made based on the needs of their communities and in consultation with local public health officials.” 

The department says schools should not hold programs for students with underlying conditions that put them at high risk for complications from COVID-19, and staff with underlying conditions should wear masks or change jobs so they have less contact with others.

3:12 p.m. – 421 new COVID-19 cases, 19 more deaths reported

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 421 more confirmed cases of COVID-19 Thursday for a total of 15,954 across the state. 

Another 19 deaths were reported, which means 400 Iowans are confirmed to have died of the coronavirus. Those numbers reflect a 24-hour period ending Thursday at 10 a.m. 

376 Iowans were hospitalized. Nearly 8,500 have recovered according to state health officials.  

12:51 p.m. – COVID-19 testing criteria to expand so that anyone who requests can be tested

Gov. Kim Reynolds says the state will expand the TestIowa program so that anyone who wants to be tested for COVID-19 can be. She said the criteria used to schedule a test would will be updated by the end of the end of Thursday. 

Up to now, the program gave priority to essential workers, but Reynolds says broader test access will help more businesses decide when to reopen. “As we start to open things up and get Iowans back in the workforce this allows us to provide that opportunity to them as well as the various businesses as well.”

Reynolds says 200,000 tests are available. Anyone who wants to be tested must fill out the assessment form at TestIowa.com. Even people who have filled it out before must do it again to qualify for scheduling.

There are currently eight TestIowa sites across the state, but some locations are expected to change next week.

11:00 a.m. - Gov. Reynolds hosts press conference

9:47 a.m. - 13,040 workers filed unemployment claims in Iowa last week

Iowa Workforce Development reports 13,040 more workers filed new unemployment claims last week, including people who work in Iowa but live outside the state.

Manufacturing was the industry with the largest number of claims, more than 4,000. Self-employed and health care workers were also near the top of the list.

After increasing for seven consecutive weeks, the number of people continuing to receive unemployment benefits fell slightly to just over 187,000.

Wednesday, May 20

5:32 p.m. – Iowa to enter agreement allowing small lockers to sell meat across state lines

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the big meatpacking plants, with many workers becoming infected and some places closing or reducing capacity. That’s brought renewed attention to the small, local meat lockers in many states. Now, Iowa is the seventh state, mostly in the Midwest, to enter an agreement allowing some of its small lockers to sell meat across state lines.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig says the effort to join the “cooperative interstate shipment” program began nearly a year ago. But gaining approval at this time has added meaning. “We’re really excited to be able to launch this and do it at a time when we know, we’ve highlighted, the importance of having additional markets.”

Eligible meat lockers must have fewer than 25 employees. They already must meet the same food safety requirements as the federally inspected plants. Daily on-site inspections will still come from state employees, but federal food inspectors will also make visits.

4:02 p.m. – Catholic Masses In Some Counties May Resume Thursday As Bishops Ease Restrictions

Catholic leaders are lifting restrictions on celebrating mass in-person in certain Iowa counties.

Beginning Thursday, The Des Moines diocese is allowing daily Monday through Saturday services to resume, in parishes in counties with lower levels of virus activity. 

The Dubuque diocese will allow all parishes to hold in-person masses beginning May 30. Archbishop Michael Jackels says his decision comes after seeing a downward trend in coronavirus cases for the northeast Iowa region. “We’re not yet out of the woods. The coronavirus is still with us. And if we’re not careful, it could come back with a vengeance. And so we will continue to monitor the data.”

Jackels says worshipers must still take precautions to protect themselves and slow the spread of the virus. “That’s why at any gathering, for outreach to the poor, or faith formation and worship, we’ll be asked to do things like wear a mask and practice social distancing,” he said.

Iowa’s Catholic dioceses had been united in prohibiting in-person services, even after Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted her restrictions on religious gatherings. Church leaders are still urging medically vulnerable people to stay home and worship remotely.

As of Wednesday, the dioceses of Sioux City and Davenport had not released plans to resume in-person services.

1:47 p.m. - Movie theaters, zoos, museums, and wedding venues allowed to reopen this Friday

Gov. Kim Reynolds says some more businesses including movie theaters, wedding venues and bars can reopen over the next several days.

Movie theaters, zoos, museums, and wedding venues are allowed to reopen this Friday. Weddings will be exempt from the 10-person limit on most gatherings if the venue follows state public health guidelines. Swimming pools can also open Friday for lessons and lap swim. 

Next Thursday, May 28, bars can reopen at half capacity. Then on June 1, school-sponsored activities such as baseball and softball are allowed to resume. 

Reynolds was asked what data supports her move to allow more facilities to reopen. “We are seeing a stabilization. We’re not overwhelming our health care systems. We demonstrated that we have the resources to manage any kind of an uptick or a surge.” 

Reynolds says she’s watching the state’s coronavirus data for signs of increasing virus activity. But she hasn’t said what, if anything, would cause her to tighten restrictions.   

11:00 a.m. - Gov. Reynolds hosts press conference 

10:00 a.m. – 237 new COVID-19 cases, 14 more deaths reported

There are confirmed cases in 98 of Iowa's 99 counties. Decatur County is the only county in Iowa without a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 237 additional COVID-19 cases Wednesday for a total of 15,533 confirmed cases.

Fourteen more deaths were reported, and 381 Iowans were hospitalized. A total of 381 Iowans are confirmed to have died of the coronavirus. These numbers reflect the 24-hour period ending Wednesday at 10 a.m.

More than 8,000 Iowans have recovered, according to the state.

There are confirmed cases in 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Decatur County is the only county in Iowa without a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.

Tuesday, May 19

4:30 p.m. – Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar form bipartisan effort to ensure relief for ethanol producers 

With people driving less, demand for fuel has plummeted and dozens of ethanol plants across the country are sitting idle. As Congress works on another pandemic relief package, some senators want to ensure that ethanol doesn’t get left out.

Grassley had proposed an amendment to the CARES Act. It would have provided relief to ethanol companies if oil companies got help. Both were left out of that law. Then, the federal government bought up a million barrels of oil. So Grassley is introducing the amendment as a standalone bill. It’s a fairness issue, he says. “I’m not sure the oil companies or oil-interest senators, see the same equity connection I do. But that doesn’t keep us from moving ahead.”

Klobuchar is co-sponsoring the bill. The House has already passed the HEROES Act, a fourth round of relief money. The Senate is working on its version.

Read the full story via IPR's Amy Mayer.

4:18 p.m. – Des Moines NAACP says racial violence and hate speech have grown worse during COVID-19 pandemic

A 22-year-old black man in Des Moines says he wants to know why he was targeted by three white men who brutally assaulted him last weekend. DarQuan Jones told police at least one of the men used racial slurs during the attack.

In his first comments to reporters Tuesday, Jones said the attackers broke his arm, his nose and five bones in his face. He was rescued by two residents in a nearby apartment. Otherwise, he says he may not have survived. “I could have been gone, but within the grace of God I’m still here with my family my friends and my loved ones.”

Des Moines NAACP president Kameron Middlebrooks says racial violence and hate speech have grown worse during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Police have said they are still investigating whether race was a factor in the assault  

Read the full story from IPR's Grant Gerlock. 

4:08 p.m. – Department of Corrections reports cases of COVID-19 in five of Iowa’s nine prisons

Cases of the coronavirus are now being reported in five of Iowa’s nine prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. The latest facility to report a case is the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, where a staffer has tested positive for the virus.

As of Tuesday, 23 incarcerated Iowans and 15 staffers have tested positive across five facilities. The Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville has had the most documented cases, with a total of 31.   

The spread of the virus in jails and prisons is raising concerns across the country, as cramped conditions can turn the facilities into hotspots that endanger inmates, staff and law enforcement officers, and can quickly affect the broader community.

Other states have opted to do mass testing in their prisons, an approach Iowa has not taken.

2:13 p.m. – Gov. Reynolds says state did not mishandle complaint about Tyson meat facility safety

Reynolds said at a press conference Tuesday that she does not think the state mishandled a complaint about safety conditions at a meat packing facility that later experienced a COVID-19 outbreak.

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration took more than two weeks to seek and receive a response from Tyson Foods for an April complaint about its Perry plant.

It then determined the company’s efforts to keep workers safe were satisfactory without an inspection.

A week after the complaint was closed, more than 700 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Gov. Reynolds said her office has spoken to OSHA and thinks it responded adequately. “They had, in fact, already been in touch with the Tyson, other facilities, and the Perry plant to talk about some of the processes that they were putting in place.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne has called for an investigation into how the complaint was handled.

1:15 p.m. – State officials now releasing antibody testing numbers

State officials said at a press conference Tuesday that they have started releasing information on the number of Iowans who have undergone serology testing.

The testing uses a blood sample to look for antibodies linked to COVID-19. If someone tests positive, it could indicate they’ve had the novel coronavirus.

More than 12,000 Iowans have been tested so far with nearly 1,700 testing positive for the antibodies.

State Medical Director Caitlin Pedati said it’s still unclear how the antibodies work in terms of building immunity towards COVID-19. But the state is using the data to track the virus.

“It's going to be really important for us to better understand the kind of immunity that people are developing, and also to help us understand where in our communities this virus might have been, and where it might be moving.”

Pedati said people who are suspected to have had the virus along with healthcare workers and critical infrastructure workers are being tested.

12:19 p.m.  Amid pandemic, U.S. Democratic primary candidates debate in-person on Iowa PBS

The four Democrats running to face Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst debated for the first time Monday night. The November race is looking to be both competitive and expensive. Sen. Ernst hopes to get a second term representing Iowa, and Democrats see the seat as a possible pickup in November as they try to take the majority in the Senate.

Read more via IPR’s Clay Masters, and watch the full debate.

12:00 p.m. – University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics doctors host live coronavirus Q and A in Spanish

Dr. Eleanor Lisa Lavadie-Gomez, MD, will be accompanied by contagious disease specialist Dr. Jorge Salinas, MD, for a live question and answer session. Watch live here, and head over to their Facebook page to leave a question. 

10:36 a.m. - As of 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, the state reports 341 new COVID-19 cases and 12 more deaths

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Monday that the state will now continuously update COVID-19 numbers on its website throughout the day instead of providing once-daily updates.

As of 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, 341 more Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, and 12 more Iowans have died of the virus.

As of 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, 341 more Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 15,296, and 12 more people have died from the virus. This means 367 Iowans have died from COVID-19.383 Iowans are hospitalized with the virus. More than 7,800 people have recovered, and 383 Iowans are hospitalized with the virus.

These numbers reflect more than a 24 hour time period as they include numbers reported on Monday.

11:00 a.m. - Gov. Reynolds hosts press conference

Monday, May 18

4:57 p.m. – State Hygenic Lab expands coronavirus testing criteria to include children and staffers at childcare centers.

The shift comes as there’s increased attention on a severe inflammatory syndrome in kids that is associated with the virus. Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye says the expansion in testing will help gauge impacts on children. She leads the public health department in Black Hawk County, which has more than 1,800 confirmed cases of the virus. “It’s to make sure that also we’re providing the necessary care for children, that are presented with respiratory illnesses and…they can determine anything else.”

Children and staff at childcare homes or childcare centers who have a fever or respiratory symptoms can now qualify for testing at the State Hygienic Lab.  

3:28 p.m. – State launches call center to answer questions about TestIowa

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Monday the state has launched a new call center to respond to questions about the TestIowa program.

Reynolds says the calls will be taken by nurses who can answer questions about taking the online assessment or problems getting test results. But the hotline does not address issues with access to the assessment website. Reynolds says the nurses cannot fill out the questionnaire for people who call in. “If you can’t take the assessment because you don’t have access to Internet, ask a trusted friend or family member to assist you.”

Reynolds says the number for the call center is posted within the assessment and in follow up messages to people who fill out the form. 

TestIowa sites are scheduled this week for eight locations around the state including Storm Lake, Denison and Ottumwa.  

3:23 p.m. – County attorneys and judges work to issue citations and release incarcerated Iowans

As parts of Iowa’s economy continue to reopen, law enforcement officials say they’re still trying to limit the number of people entering the criminal justice system. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, officers, county attorneys and judges have been working to issue citations and release incarcerated Iowans when possible.

Lieutenant Chad Cribb says that will remain the case, even as some businesses and activities resume. He leads the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association. “We’re going to continue to do our part and use officer discretion. But obviously, you know, somebody commits a crime and…it’s deemed necessary, you know they’re going to continue to go to jail.”

The judicial system is also still on hiatus. Under an order by the state Supreme Court, many cases and court services have been delayed until at least June.

2:32 p.m.  – 304 new COVID-19 cases and four more deaths reported Monday

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 304 more confirmed cases of COVID-19 Monday, for a total of 14,955 people who have tested positive.

Four more people are confirmed to have died of the coronavirus, which brings the state to 355 deaths in the pandemic.

According to state health officials, more than 7,300 people have recovered from the virus, and 382 people are currently hospitalized for treatment.

12:39 p.m. – Two children sick with condition related to COVID-19

The Iowa Department of Public Health is confirming that two children in eastern Iowa are sick with a condition related to COVID-19, known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the syndrome causes fever and inflammation that can require intensive care treatment. 

State medical director, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, says Iowa health care providers must now report any potential cases of the condition. In the meantime, she says children and families should follow health guidelines. “Things like frequent handwashing, social distancing and the use of cloth face coverings when you’re unable to maintain a distance of six feet.”

Pedati says the two children in eastern Iowa are currently stable. She says public health officials need to learn more before adding any recommendations for school or child care.

11:00 a.m. - Gov. Reynolds hosts COVID-19 press briefing

9:32 a.m. - As businesses open, ISU expert says supply chain interruptions expected to continue 

As more businesses start to open up across the state, experts say they’re not expecting the supply chain to get back to normal anytime soon. When people mass bought items like toilet paper and cleaning products, it caused huge ripples in supply chains that means consumers will likely still see empty shelves for basic products for months, said Scott Grawe, the chair of supply chain management at Iowa State University.

“You saw this surge in demand and surge in volume, while the supply chains are not set up to handle these sudden surges in demand, and it takes some time to replenish that,” Grawe said.

Grawe said the shortages of most products won’t last more than a few days at a time, but these “hiccups” in the chain likely continue until people feel things have returned more to normal. Consumers can help this by limiting the amount they purchase to what they need, he said.

Additionally, Grawe said supply chains are likely going to struggle as places like restaurants reopen and the demand for products shifts. For example, he said restaurants owners also may struggle to know how much they need to order.

“They're not quite sure how many people are going to come through those doors,” he said. “And as they start to figure that out, the supply chains will slowly come back into order again, but it's going to go through some hiccups in order to get to that point.”

8:07 a.m. – 602 new COVID-19 cases, 15 deaths reported this weekend

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 279 additional COVID-19 cases Saturday, and another 323 cases on Sunday.

Fifteen Iowans died of the virus on Saturday and Sunday bringing the state’s total deaths to 351 since March when the first cases were confirmed in the state.

More than 7,000 Iowans have recovered, according to the state, and on Sunday, 376 Iowans were hospitalized due to the novel coronavirus.