DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Iowa may be in the geographic middle of the country and near the middle of the pack in most state rankings, but right now it is No. 1 on the national coronavirus charts, as the state experiences what one infectious disease expert called a severe outbreak.
Iowa had the highest rate in the nation for Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people as of Aug. 30, which put the Hawkeye State in the so-called red zone for new cases and the rate of positive test results, according to a report issued Sunday by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Iowa reported 7,321 new Covid-19 cases last week, which was up 77.4% from the week before, or a rate of 232 per 100,000 compared to a national rate of 88 per 100,000.
“Iowa is in the red zone for cases, indicating more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week with the highest rate in the country,” the White House task force report said. Iowa ranked fifth in the country for the rate of positive test results.
State officials in large part blame the return of students to Iowa’s three state universities, where students congregated in bars, parties and fraternity and sorority houses. For example, in Johnson County, the home of the University of Iowa, the number of Covid-19 cases doubled after students returned to campus.
More than a third of the increase in Iowa’s coronavirus numbers were recorded in three counties: Johnson, Story, home of Iowa State University, and Polk, home of the state capital in Des Moines. Yet, the report said rural and urban counties alike in Iowa have experienced increases in cases and test positivity.
This is not a matter of Iowa’s numbers spiking while other states’ numbers are leveling off, however, according to one Iowa infectious disease expert interviewed by Courthouse News.
“I think we truly have something worse going on here,” said University of Iowa professor Christine Petersen, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. “The level of per-capita infection rate is the highest in the country. We have a severe outbreak.”
In response, the White House report recommended that Iowa implement “common sense preventive measures” to stop further spread. Specifically, the task force recommended a statewide mask mandate, that bars be closed, and restaurants restricted to 50% of capacity in the yellow zones and 25% in red zones. The report also said all universities should fully test students, isolate those with positive results and trace others with whom they have been in contact.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said at a press conference Wednesday that she has already implemented some of those recommendations, including selective bar closures.
“I have done a lot of them,” she said, although she has consistently rejected calls for stricter measures, including a statewide mask mandate, which she said would be unenforceable. “I still believe it is up to the governors of the states” to decide what actions to take, Reynolds said.
On face masks, the governor said in an Aug. 27 proclamation: “I strongly encourage all Iowans two or older to wear a mask or other face covering when in public settings, especially in circumstances when it is not possible to remain six feet away from others outside their household, unless it is unsafe to do so because of health or disability.”
That proclamation closed bars in six counties, with exceptions for establishments with at least 50% of their revenue coming from food.
In response to questions from reporters about why she has not gone further, Reynolds said Wednesday that may yet happen.
“We can’t prevent people from getting sick,” or stop the spread of the coronavirus, the governor said, but she said the state has taken measures to slow the spread and warned more action will be taken if the numbers do not come down.
“We are going to monitor this next week and see if the mitigation efforts bring the numbers down. If not, we are going to take additional steps,” Reynolds said.