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How Iowa became a coronavirus hot spot

Iowa is dealing with a surge of coronavirus cases that has turned the state into a hot spot for the disease. The increase has been driven in part by the return to school, with virus clusters developing around the state’s major universities. But Gov. Kim Reynolds has resisted measures like widespread bar closures and mask mandates. Amna Nawaz talks to O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's focus in on a COVID hot spot in the Midwest.

    Iowa is dealing with a surge of cases in recent weeks, along with nearby states such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas. Iowa has one of the fastest growing rates in the country at the moment.

    Amna Nawaz has a report from there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

    That surge in Iowa has been driven in part by the return to school, including the state's major universities. But that's not all.

    O. Kay Henderson is the news director at Radio Iowa, and she appears regularly on Iowa PBS. She joins me now from Des Moines.

    Kay, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's jump right in, because the numbers are worth highlighting. Statewide, we should mention, Iowa currently has more than 66,000 confirmed cases, more than 1,100 deaths, but it's not the infection volume that is troubling experts. It is the per capita numbers, right?

    The average in Iowa is triple the national average over the last week. Governor Reynolds held a press conference about this earlier today. How would you describe her response to the latest troubling figures?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Well, as many people know, the White House Coronavirus Task Force has been advising states on steps to take to sort of mitigate the spread of the virus.

    And the task force this past week recommended that Iowa close bars in 61 of its 99 counties and have a statewide mandate for face coverings in public places.

    The governor has resisted both of those things. But, last week, she did act, closed bars in six of Iowa's counties. Three of them are in the populous places in Iowa, in Polk and Dallas counties, the Des Moines metro, Linn County, which is where Cedar Rapids is, the other major metro in Iowa, and then in the college communities, where the big state universities are located.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you a little bit more about that, because the experts have said community transmission remains high in those university towns.

    When you look at that one county around the University of Iowa, Johnson County, there was a surge in positivity rates in a matter of weeks. Back in August 2, in that week, the positivity rate, which is a percentage of the positive cases of everyone tested, right, August 2, that was 9.9 percent. By August 23, that had jumped to 29.7 percent.

    What happened here? Was there not enough mitigation put in place before? Were those steps not enough?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Well, many of the folks in Iowa City who work in the health industry had hoped that students would be tested as they returned to campus and then put in quarantine.

    But the university decided not to test students who were returning. But students have been tested as they have been exposed to positive cases.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about another county, Story County. That's where Iowa State University is.

    There were plans in place for a football game next week. This was catching a lot of attention. Governor Reynolds was actually asked about that football game and the plan to allow fans to attend in the press conference.

    Here's what she said in response.

  • Gov. Kim Reynolds:

    So, if you have underlying conditions, and you're part of a vulnerable population, maybe I wouldn't go to the Iowa State football game next week.

    It's 25,000 out of a capacity of 61,500. It is outdoors. They should — I'm sure, should wear a mask. And if we see an impact, then we will have to adjust accordingly.

  • Question:

    But, Governor…

  • Gov. Kim Reynolds:

    But if you don't know, if you don't think it's safe, don't go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kay, it's worth pointing out, that was at noon Eastern. Less than three hours later, plans changed, and the university said no fans will be allowed.

    What happened there behind the scenes? Who's driving the decision-making?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Well, Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard made the announcement 90 minutes after the governor made that statement that your viewers just heard.

    And he, in his written statement, said that the university president had reached out to people in the community, heard their concerns, and reversed course, meaning that there will be no fans in the stands when Iowa State has its home opener in Ames on September 12.

    The Story County Board of Public Health had been urging University officials to have games without fans in the stands. And last night, there was a lengthy city council meeting in Ames, where citizens were expressing either outrage or support of a city mandate that people wear face coverings in the city of Ames.

    It passed. It goes into effect on Friday. But because of the governor's public health declarations here, that prevents cities and counties from enforcing local mandates. So, there will be no penalty for not wearing a face mask, although there is an ordinance saying that folks should.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have to ask you, very briefly, Kay, before we let you go there, Republican Senator Joni Ernst has recently cast doubt on the death toll, saying it's likely not — it's likely overstated, rather, even though experts say the opposite.

    Is that stance, is that doubt, is that something reflective of people's concerns on the ground in Iowa?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    I was hearing from conservative Republicans in the state legislature as early as April that they were casting doubts about the number of COVID deaths that were being reported in the state way back then.

    As you mentioned a few moments ago, 1,100 deaths in Iowa have been attributed to COVID. And Senator Ernst mentioned that she has heard from people in the health care industry that hospitals are misdiagnosing people as having COVID in order to get higher payments for the care of those patients.

    I have reached out to the hospital association here and to the state Medicaid program. Neither of them have responded to that accusation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should point out that experts seem to agree that the death count is actually undercounted nationwide in this pandemic.

    That is O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa, the news director there.

    Thank you so much, Kay.

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Thank you.

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