Reynolds reopens more Iowa businesses, says hospitals are prepared

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference about COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center on May 13, 2020. (Screen shot from event livestream)

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday that Iowa hospitals are prepared to manage COVID-19 cases as she reopens hair and nail salons, barber shops and massage therapy businesses statewide starting Friday, as well as businesses like retail stores, restaurants and fitness centers in the 22 counties that are not yet open.

Bars, casinos and theaters other than drive-ins will remain closed statewide until May 27. Reynolds said she had not spoken to high school athletics officials about allowing baseball and softball.

The openings come as some areas of the state continue to see increases in COVID-19 cases. Polk County was identified this week as one of the 10 counties in the nation with the fastest-growing rates of coronavirus. It also comes a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top Trump administration health official, warned members of Congress that reopening the country too soon could “trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back.”

Reynolds said Iowa is “reopening in a very responsible, safe and stable manner.” She pointed out that Fauci also cautioned that states avoid overwhelming their health-care system when they reopen.

Reynolds attributed some of the increase in Polk County and Woodbury County cases to expanded testing. But she also made it clear the decisions to reopen the state are based not on the prevalence or spread of the virus. Rather, the determining factor is whether hospitals can cope with the number of Iowans who become seriously ill.

Reynolds said the mitigation efforts she put in place on March 17 “gave us time to validate that our regional health care systems have the ICU beds, ventilators and staff that they need to effectively manage the care of COVID-19 patients and increase their capacity to accept more patients if necessary.”

She said Iowa met those criteria. “And in stabilizing our health care resources, we’ve moved to the recovery phase, gradually shifting our focus from mitigation to containing and managing virus activity.”

The state has been tracking hospital capacity and resources based on six multi-county regions. The data reported on the state’s coronavirus website do not reflect individual hospitals that may be over-extended. For example, the Sioux City Journal reported over the weekend that two Sioux City hospitals had been forced to transfer some COVID-19 patients.

Reynolds has said the state has prepared for reopening through increased COVID-19 testing that allows it to target outbreaks from areas as small as the region identified by a ZIP code.  But she indicated Wednesday that a spike in positive tests would not result in a reversal of decisions to reopen businesses but rather a renewed focus on ensuring hospitals can handle any surge.

“As we increase testing, especially in the hot spots, we’re going to see our numbers continue to rise. But what we’re going to watch is we want to make sure that the rise in positive numbers is not impacting our health care system,” she said.

The number of deaths has also continued to rise. The state saw 17 additional deaths reported Wednesday for a total of 306 to date.  Reynolds said any deaths are “tragic” but couched the death rate as a “lagging indicator” that might follow seven to eight days after an individual tests positive.

Reynolds’ proclaimation also allows reopening of medical spas, tattoo parlors, tanning facilities, campgrounds, racetracks, libraries, drive-in theaters and social and fraternal clubs.

In addition to bars, casinos and theaters, facilities that must remain closed through May 27 are senior citizen centers and adult day care, bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls and amusement parks.

All business openings are subject to Iowa Department of Public Health guidelines for social distancing. Businesses are allowed to operate at 50% of capacity while separating customers and following a cleaning regimen.

Reynolds and IDPH officials said vulnerable Iowans, including those over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions, should continue to stay home as much as possible, maintain a distance of at least six feet from others when they go out, and wear a face covering if social distancing isn’t possible.

There were 335 new positive tests reported Wednesday for a total of 13,289 positive tests to date.  The state reports that 85,719 tests have been administered to date.

The number of tests being reported per day still lags behind the 5,000 tests per day that were anticipated with the addition of the Test Iowa program, which was expected to add 3,000 daily tests to the state’s existing capacity. Reynolds said the Test Iowa tests are not yet validated but she expected that process to be complete this week.