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Iowa Caught In The Crosshairs Of Coronavirus Spike And Political Battle


Iowa is experiencing one of the biggest spikes of COVID-19 cases in the country. The surge coincides with schools and universities opening there. And that has led to friction involving politics, economics and science. From Des Moines, Iowa Public Radio's Natalie Krebs reports.

NATALIE KREBS, BYLINE: Iowa is clearly in the crosshairs of both a COVID-19 spike and a political battle that's now playing out across multiple fronts. Let's start with the universities. As classes resumed at the University of Iowa and Iowa State last month, the number of COVID-19 cases soared in Iowa City and Ames. That started the blame game between students and some campus administrators. University of Iowa graduate student John Jepsen says school administrators should never have brought thousands of students back to campus during a pandemic.

JOHN JEPSEN: They need to acknowledge that they were not prepared for this. And they need to begin to ramp up the testing and the contact tracing in a major way.

KREBS: Amid growing COVID numbers, students and faculty groups are pressuring administrators to move all classes online. University of Iowa students even staged a sickout earlier this month. But administrators are giving no indication they'll do that. They note that many of their classes are already taught virtually and say testing on campus is consistent with CDC guidelines. They point to student behavior that doesn't follow safe practices. Iowa State junior Rebecca Bruce says she contracted COVID-19 her first week of classes.

REBECCA BRUCE: Because, you know, I've been here the entire summer - been social distancing, doing my job, and there haven't been very many people, and I've been safe. And then, you know, the first week of classes happen, and I end up getting it.

KREBS: Meanwhile, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds continues to push a message of personal responsibility and resists imposing more restrictions - things like a shelter-in-place order or a mask mandate. Though as new cases shatter daily records, she stepped in, closing bars in six counties. That put her at odds with some college town officials, like Amber Corrieri, who's on the city council in Ames.

AMBER CORRIERI: We're taking these reactive measures and really harming not just business owners but the people that they employ, rather than doing something proactive, like having a statewide mask mandate.

KREBS: But while Gov. Reynolds takes a mostly hands-off approach to campuses, she's more aggressively pushing for public K-12 schools to open for in-person teaching. The state has mandated that schools can only move to virtual instruction if their county's percent positivity rate is above 15%, a threshold many public health experts criticize as unrealistically high. Des Moines Public Schools, the state's largest district, is openly defying the governor's orders, moving all of its classes online despite failing to obtain a temporary injunction this week while its lawsuit against the state moves through the courts.

At yesterday's school board meeting, Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart said the district is prioritizing public health over state rules.

THOMAS AHART: We have teachers starving to be in the presence of their students in real time, in real space, which is where they can do their best work. But our health conditions right now don't allow for it.

KREBS: Jorge Salinas is an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa hospitals and clinics. He says it's mixed messages from Iowa's leaders that are causing spikes.

JORGE SALINAS: We need a coordinated public health response. If we're not all on the same page, the chances of success are very limited.

KREBS: Salinas says moving classes online, closing bars and issuing mask mandates can all help slow the spread of COVID-19. But without a clear consensus, those strategies might not be enough.

For NPR News, I'm Natalie Krebs.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Sept. 15, 2020. In this report, we incorrectly refer to Rebecca Bruce with female pronouns. Bruce uses the pronoun “they.”]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 14, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly refer to Rebecca Bruce with female pronouns. Bruce uses the pronoun "they."
Natalie Krebs is the health reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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