Iowa strays from CDC guidelines to loosen quarantine rules, including for schools

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference Sept. 29, 2020, at Iowa PBS in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

The Iowa Department of Public Health is changing its quarantine guidelines and will no longer recommend Iowans quarantine for two weeks if they’re exposed to someone with COVID-19, as long as everyone was wearing a face mask.

The new move, which goes against recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, may allow more teachers and students to stay in school, even if they are exposed to the virus.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the change during her press conference on Tuesday and said superintendents expressed frustrations to her about quarantining a “disproportionately” high number of students because of a few positive COVID-19 cases, she said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds talks about loosening COVID-19 quarantine guidelines at a news conference Sept. 29, 2020 at Iowa PBS in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

While Reynolds acknowledged that wearing a face mask is effective at slowing the spread of the virus, she said she will not require them in schools.

“I think it provides some flexibility to them and it really helps keep the kids in school,” Reynolds said of the new guideline.

Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state’s epidemiologist, acknowledged the new recommendation strays from the CDC’s recommendation that people who have been exposed should quarantine to reduce the risk of infecting others.

But she said the new guideline stems from the public health department’s own observation of school districts in Sioux County and new quarantine policies in Nebraska and Wyoming.

The health department examined four school districts in Sioux County and found only one required face masks. The three districts that did not require coverings experienced a 30% to 130% higher rate of new COVID-19 cases, Pedati said.

Pedati also pointed to the CDC’s study that shows face masks stopped the spread of COVID-19 at a Missouri Great Clips where two COVID-19-positive hairdressers did not spread the virus.

The new guidelines do not apply to health care or long-term care facilities, where quarantining for two weeks is still recommended.

“Now this is exactly the kind of adjustment we want to make as we move along, based on best available evidence,” Pedati said. “If we find there is no information and we need to make another adjustment, we’ll do that as well.”

Iowa State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati speaks at a news conference Sept. 29, 2020, at Iowa PBS in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Pedati said the CDC was notified Iowa was straying from the department’s guidelines and will collect data from the state.

“I don’t want to insinuate there’s zero risk with this,” Pedati said.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, condemned the new recommendations and said they are not consistent with guidelines from scientific communities about how to respond to COVID-19.

“Weeks into the school year, we are once again grappling with cloudy information that has no basis in science,” Beranek said in a statement. “At the very least, the guidance should come with mandatory face coverings statewide, including continued social distancing and other mitigation efforts designed to promote health and safety in our public schools.”

The Iowa Public Health Association asked Reynolds to show the “public health evidence” that changing the quarantine guidelines will help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

“Until a safe and effective vaccine is approved and widely available, universal mask wearing and social distancing, combined with contact tracing and quarantine, are our best defenses against the pandemic,” according to a statement from the organization. “This is how we protect our students, teachers, and other essential workers, and ensure that our small businesses and overall economy recover to their full potential.”