White House: Iowa mask mandate could help quell deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes
A statewide mask mandate could help rein in deadly coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes, White House experts told Iowa leaders this week.
“COVID-19 is being brought into nursing homes through community transmission,” according to a new report to Iowa officials from the White House coronavirus task force. The report recommends Iowa look to Arkansas as a place where a mask mandate has helped quell such transmission.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has repeatedly rebuffed mask mandate recommendations, saying she believes such requirements are unenforceable. Instead, she has encouraged Iowans to wear face coverings in public, especially when they can’t stay apart from other people.
The federal recommendation is included in a new report from the White House task force, which the Iowa Department of Public Health released to the Des Moines Register on Wednesday. The report is dated Sept. 13, but state officials said they received it Tuesday evening.
The new report notes that Iowa’s coronavirus outbreak has eased a bit since it was the country’s steepest in late August. However, Iowa continued to have the third-highest rate of transmission in the country, the report says. It recorded 151 new cases per 100,000 population in the week ending Sept. 6, more than double the national average of 74.
The coronavirus has swept through dozens of Iowa nursing homes, where frail, elderly residents live in close quarters. By Wednesday afternoon, state officials reported that nursing home residents accounted for 653 of the Iowa's 1,235 COVID-19 deaths. The Iowa Department of Public Health website was reporting 38 current outbreaks in nursing homes. That was more than double the number of such outbreaks the state was reporting in mid-July.
Most nursing homes have strictly limited visitors since March, so experts say the virus' main route into the facilities is through staff members who don't realize they're infected. To combat this, federal officials have been shipping rapid testing equipment to nursing homes so they can routinely screen employees. Brent Willett, president of the Iowa Health Care Association, said Wednesday that most of the approximately 380 Iowa nursing homes that qualify for the equipment should have it by the end of the week.
The White House report’s release came after Gov. Kim Reynolds’ weekly news conference, in which she explained why she was allowing bars to reopen in four of six counties where she ordered them closed last month, and why she was continuing to push Des Moines schools to reopen for in-person classes.
In its Sept. 6 report, the federal task force's report said "bars must be closed" in 61 Iowa counties. In the Sept. 13 report, the federal experts urged Iowa leaders to "use standard metrics to determine school learning options and capacity limits for bars and indoor dining" in 62 counties and 22 metro areas that were deemed red or yellow zones for virus transmission.
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Reynolds told reporters at a recent news conference that she has implemented many of the task force's recommendations, but not all of them. The task force, led by Dr. Deborah Birx, has been sending weekly reports to each state. Some states have not been releasing them publicly, but the Iowa Department of Public Health has been doing so.
Reynolds' stance on masks is at odds with many public health experts, including the task force appointed by President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican.
Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified to Congress on Wednesday that masks could provide more protection than a vaccine.
"These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have," Redfield said.
Read the Iowa report from the White House coronavirus task force
Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8449.
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