Reynolds says COVID-19 immunity strikes a ‘balance.’ It’s not even close.

Iowa's COVID-19 immunity bill is not about keeping health care workers on the job. (Photo by South Agency/Getty Images)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says her signature on a COVID-19 immunity bill for businesses and health care facilities that fail to protect their staff and customers or patients represents a “balance.”

Reynolds discussed the legislation Thursday in response to questions from reporters about the story first reported by Iowa Capital Dispatch about resident deaths at a Dubuque nursing home. State inspectors allege the facility kept three staff members working who had symptoms of the coronavirus. The staff members later tested positive. Inspectors said they observed staff members on the job without facemasks or other personal protective equipment.

At a home that now has a total of just 48 residents, 43 have been infected with COVID-19. Eleven residents have died.

How do you “balance” the lives of 11 Iowans with a corporation’s interest in not getting sued?

Reynolds said Senate File 2338 is about keeping doctors and other health-care providers on the job.

“And so we want to make sure that we have doctors and nurses and care facilities that are willing to provide these critical services and we want to make sure businesses feel confident in opening back up,” she said.

But this isn’t really about keeping doctors and nurses on the job. These essential staff have worked through the height of the pandemic and through shortages of PPE. They put their own safety on the line before there was any sort of liability protection in place. Medical professionals took an oath to serve patients and they have done so admirably.

Certainly, there should be protection from frivolous lawsuits for front-line health care providers who have done their jobs to the best of their ability, based on the best information available to them at the time. I’ve heard no one dispute that.

This is not about protecting health-care workers who were doing their best under difficult circumstances. This is about protecting the bottom lines of employers and liability insurance companies.

We know this because Republicans in the Legislature rejected proposals to ensure that those who were in substantial compliance with the law and emergency temporary standards would have immunity. Instead, they insisted that a plaintiff would have to prove the business acted recklessly or with malice or the intention to case harm.

Reynolds again suggests this is a balanced approach.  “The bill has appropriate exemptions that still permits some lawsuits for reckless or willful misconduct and so I think it strikes a balance that it needs to. We want to make sure again that … professionals can continue to provide these critical services but there also are appropriate measures that Iowans can still execute … if they feel reckless or willful misconduct has taken place,” she said.

That’s not balance. Proving recklessness or willful misconduct is such a high bar that it effectively slams the courthouse door in the face of most people who have been injured by gross negligence. And that is what the industries who wrote this legislation intended.

The governor also said this legislation was about giving businesses the confidence they need to reopen. Maybe it will, in some cases, but what about the employees? What gives workers confidence is having an employer who is sending co-workers home when they are showing virus symptoms. What gives workers confidence is when employers are eliminating incentives for working while sick, maintaining social distancing whenever possible and providing appropriate PPE, using strict hygiene standards and rigorous testing to detect and control any outbreaks.

The Legislature and Reynolds could have provided that confidence and a powerful incentive for employers like meatpackers and nursing homes to take every appropriate precaution by insisting on some accountability in return for immunity. Instead, this legislation provided an incentive to keep sick workers on the job and roll the dice that any outbreak won’t be severe enough to shut them down entirely. Many meatpackers have already taken this gamble and lost, causing a heavy toll in their communities and throughout the state.

The only way this legislation could represent a “balance” is if the lives and health of vulnerable Iowans ꟷ elderly nursing home residents and low-income, immigrant meatpacking workers ꟷ weighed at least as much as the wealth of the employers charged with keeping them safe. Not only is that not the case with this legislation but the mere suggestion that the lives of vulnerable Iowans should be “balanced” against economic interests is a morally bankrupt proposition.

Iowa has to live with this legislation, at least for now. Congress is still considering COVID-19 immunity legislation. Iowans can still make a difference by encouraging their congressional representatives ꟷ and especially Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst ꟷ to insist on accountability in exchange for any relief from liability.