Iowa hit with ‘staggering’ number unemployment claims

Gov. Kim Reynolds answers questions about the state's coronavirus response at a news conference on March 20, 2020. (Pool photo courtesy of The Des Moines Register)

The state of Iowa has already been hit with a “staggering” and unprecedented number of unemployment claims as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, even though it isn’t ordering residents to stay home, state officials said Friday.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a Friday afternoon press conference that while some states, such as Illinois, have issued stay-at-home, or sheltering-in-place, orders for residents, it’s not an option she’s looking at.

“No, I am not considering that here,” she said, adding that she is talking to the governors of other states and many of them “are in a different place than we are” in terms of the spread of COVID-19.

As for ordering non-essential businesses, such as clothing retailers, to close, Reynolds said, “A lot of our retail stores have already made the decision to close. Some have not. You know, they have that opportunity, again, to practice social distancing. But we continue to evaluate other industries and sectors that we have not asked to close.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported on Friday one additional case of an Iowa testing positive for COVID-19, for a total of 45 positive cases in the state. According to IDPH, the individual resides in Allamakee County and is a middle-aged adult between the ages of 41 and 60. The department said 765 tests have resulted in negative findings.

Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, attended Friday’s press conference and said the number of unemployment claims now being filed in a single day is currently close to the number the state would normally see during a busy month.

“We are seeing an unprecedented number of claims,” Townsend said. “We are going to coordinate with the governor’s office and release those numbers next week once we’ve been able to catch our breath a little bit. But it is pretty staggering to see the number of claims that we are receiving.”

Townsend said the agency is redistributing its own workforce to handle the volume of claims. “We are in the process of training 162 Iowa Workforce Development employees who normally work in areas not related to unemployment insurance to be able to start taking calls on Monday,” she said.

Reynolds said that as of Friday afternoon, Iowa had the capability to conduct 620 tests for COVID-19. The State Hygienic Laboratory is now working three shifts daily, she said, which allows for 162 tests to be completed each day.

“We do have a limited number of tests in Iowa,” said Sarah Reisetter, the deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. “We are working to expand testing capacity in our state. And we are working on that every single day.”

Reisetter said she expects tests might be available to more Iowans at some point. But for now, she said, “because we do have a limited number of tests available, it’s really important that those tests be available for people who are hospitalized, and for our essential workers – like our health care workers, our law enforcement officers, those sorts of things.”

Asked what the state was doing to expand the number of intensive care unit beds in Iowa hospitals, Reynolds said that is an issue that is still being talked about.

“That’s when we sit down and we work together and we talk about the beds and the type of beds,” she explained. “That’s part of the conversation … Those are the kinds of discussions that are happening on a daily basis.”

Reynolds said she doesn’t know how many ventilators are in Iowa hospitals, adding, “If I give you that information today, that changes on a daily basis. So what you need to know — I think what’s the most important thing for Iowans to know, is that it is continually being tracked.”

Asked how many Iowans could potentially be infected under different scenarios, Reisetter said, “We don’t have modeling like that — that we would share at this time.” She said the department is “keeping a close eye” on what is happening in other states and in other countries.

Reynolds said Iowa’s business community is working with the state to help address the needs of the public. “I have businesses calling and saying, ‘How can I switch what we are doing to help you with (face) masks?’” she said. “At our Department of Corrections we will be producing hand sanitizer and, from our ethanol plants, they’ll be sending alcohol down to the Department of Corrections — denatured alcohol — so that we can build, that we can make into hand sanitizer.”

She said she had talked to Winnebago, the Iowa manufacturer of recreational vehicles, on Friday morning. “They said they have already supplied orders in Louisiana, California, and Indiana I think was another one — trailers for stand-up mobile units for places for people stay.”

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.