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Reynolds: ‘some of the toughest decisions’

Governor explains how state responded to COVID-19

-Messenger file photo

In an exclusive 45-minute interview with The Messenger, Gov. Kim Reynolds explained the decisions she has made to guide the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts of that interview are presented here.

What have been the principles that have guided your response to the COVID pandemic?

”These are some of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make as governor of the great state of Iowa. I think what complicated it was, it was an unprecedented pandemic. Information, data and response — because it was so unknown — changed on a weekly basis, if not even more frequently than that.

”My No. 1 priority from the very beginning was to do everything I could to protect the health and safety of Iowans, especially our most vulnerable. At that point we knew we needed to work to flatten the curve to not overwhelm our health care system. In addition to that, I wanted to take critical steps to protect Iowa workers, businesses and the economy that supports them.

”At the very beginning I pledged that the decisions would be evidence-based, data driven, that I would rely on the experts in the field. I would do everything I could to make the decisions based on the data and then be as transparent as I could while protecting health care and individual’s information, but make sure that the public could see the same information and data that I was making my decisions on.

”When we started with this we didn’t even know the number of beds that would be needed, the number of vents that would be needed. With some of the early projections, it was just astronomical. We really didn’t have a system in place that would allow me to identify those in a fairly quick timeline. So we divided the state into six regions . It was an unprecedented effort with our health care system. I am incredibly grateful to them for the collaborative nature in which they worked to help me on a daily basis identify the number of hospital beds available and utilized, the number of vents available and utilized and the number of individuals that were hospitalized due to COVID. Once we were able to get that system in place, which honestly we did fairly quickly, then it started to really provide us the information to recognize that we weren’t going to, with the numbers that we were seeing, overwhelm our health care system.”

We never hear about flattening the curve anymore. Why is that?

”I think that’s because every state was dealing with the same thing that I was, they really didn’t know what the expectation would be for the usage of our hospitals and they didn’t have a way to identify the number of beds and vents. Once we were able to do that, we pivoted from that. But yeah, we seem to have lost sight that originally it was all about flattening the curve and not overwhelming our health care system.”

Who are the medical and scientific experts you have turned to for advice on handling the pandemic?

”We stood up the State Emergency Operations Center. So on March 9, I moved the entire team out to the State Emergency Operations Center because I thought it was critical that we were all on the same page, that we could communicate, that as things came up we could gather and start walking through what would be our response.

”The Iowa Department of Public Health, of course, has been instrumental in our response to COVID-19. They have a team of epidemiologists which is led by Dr. Caitlin Pedati and Dr. Ann Garvey, who has a great reputation not only in the state of Iowa. They were very important

”Of course, the CDC. We worked closely with them as they changed requirements and expectations.

”We did a weekly call with all governors and the COVID-19 task force that was led by Vice President Pence. Early on we also did nightly calls with governors across the country because we were entering into it in different stages and it was just very advantageous to see what they had gone through, what they had done.

”And then the emergency managers, homeland security, the National Guard were instrumental in standing up our six regions. The National Guard was critical in that component as well in really providing us on the ground data and helping us coordinate and facilitate numerous response teams, incident management teams coming together in each of the regions.

”So as you can see, it was all hands on deck.”

You did not issue a broad stay-at-home order for Iowa. Why not?

”I really approached this with a three-phase approach. It was stabilize, recover and grow. Stabilization, as I talked about, was about protecting Iowans, especially those most vulnerable, and health care resource management. What we did was we put in early mitigation efforts that were targeted and incremental. We based those decisions on data.

”One of the unique aspects we were dealing with is that the state of Iowa feeds the world. Ten percent of the nation’s food supply is produced by Iowa farmers. It was critically important that we keep that food supply chain moving and kept food on the table and in the grocery stores. We had over 80 percent of our workforce that remained open.

”We were able to do the targeted mitigation efforts that we needed to to address the spread and manage the resources to keep our economy open.”

Are you confident that the COVID statistics compiled by the Iowa Department of Public Health are now accurate?

”I am. Even when we made some changes when we identified some issues, the overall numbers were not impacted.

”Partly what we’re dealing with, and this has been a real struggle from the very beginning and it was certainly something that I identified early on as just an issue we need to address from the state government perspective and that is technology. I’ve already been talking about that from a budget perspective.

”Most of the state’s technology systems are outdated and a lot of systems in public health especially were antiquated systems. They weren’t built , they were never designed to address the amount of data flowing through them.

”We were very fortunate early on when I was trying to ensure that I was making decisions based on testing capacity, based on contract tracing and really quality data, we were able to look to the private sector and that’s when we were able to issue a contract with Test Iowa. That was really just a game-changer in allowing us to take this antiquated data and be able to put it into an up-to-date system that allowed us to look at data in real time right down to a ZIP code. It allowed the epidemiologist team to really review it on a daily basis. That allowed us to show trends. It allowed us to show Iowans where we were seeing some trends. And it really it helped us think about how we would strategically deploy those mitigation efforts that I talked about and really respond in a more timely manner to what potentially could be some hot spots in the state and to get in front of that and mitigate that to the best extent possible.

”An example of that would be what we just saw with the kids going back to college. Because the data that we have with Test Iowa and the robust data platform that they put in place we were able to look at that tremendous spike that we saw in positive cases and we were able to drill down and look at the data. In Story County and in Johnson County, 89 to 90 percent of those positive cases were attributed to 19- to 24-year-olds. And then when you do the contact tracing it is easy to see that it is congregate settings, some of the bars where they were gathering. It made it easier to really pinpoint the counties where we were seeing the spikes and then make a decision based on that to start to tamp down those numbers.”

Explain your decision to require in-person instruction to a large degree in Iowa schools.

”I think it’s critical that we get our kids back in the classroom and there is a whole host of reasons why. I think that we can do this safely and responsibly. School districts across the state were required to submit a plan on July 1 that was a plan for in-person learning, a plan for remote learning and a hybrid to be prepared and to be ready in case we saw some spikes in some of these school districts, or some of these counties and communities.

”Our kids have been out of the classroom since March. For six months they’ve been without a touch in the educational system. The pediatric association, the CDC, mental health experts, all say our kids need to be in the classroom. It’s more than academics. It’s about social and emotional growth.

”For so many of these kids, the school really provides a safe and successful learning environment. That’s the only place they get physical exercise. It disproportionately impacts low-income families, children with disabilities, minorities. For so many kids that’s where they get the mental health and behavioral health services that they need to be able to learn and have every opportunity to be successful. So we need to look at the whole child.

”Very few of them get sick. There’s very little spread. With all the data that we have access to, we need to do everything we can to get those children back in school. I believe we can do it in a safe and responsible manner.”

Will you be proposing any kind of relief package to the legislature when it convenes in January?

”Right now I don’t know if that’s necessary.

”We got $1.25 billion in the federal CARES Act that we’re allocating to our businesses, our families. $50 million went to mental health, $80 million went to broadband. $100 million went to our farmers. We did a significant allocation to the unemployment trust fund. And then $125 million to our local governments to help them adjust. So I think we’ve been able to utilize that to address a lot of the circumstances.

”We were in a really strong position as we headed into COVID and because of that and because of the targeted and incremental mitigation efforts that we put in place we’re really in a pretty good spot. We’re better off than a lot of the other states.

”The Council of State Governments and KPMG actually did a study on the impact of COVID on state budgets. Iowa ranked No. 1 for the lowest risk and the highest resiliency. So I think that’s a strong testament to first of all, fiscally responsible budgeting practices, the diversity of our economy and the fact that 80 percent of our businesses remained open throughout COVID. So we’re coming out of this in a much better place than a lot of the other states are.”

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