ANTHONY ARROYO, HOST: The last year has challenged all of us to adapt to our circumstances and all over the United States covid-19 was handled differently.
In Iowa the first months of 2020, local news constantly reminded Iowans of the upcoming caucus while buzz about the new coronavirus originating in China was slim. But that changed just five weeks after caucus night when our state would have its first confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Governor Kim Reynolds announced on March 8 that three people who returned from an Egyptian cruise had tested positive for the coronavirus, and she signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency the next day.
However, with the announcement of the first confirmed cases, the governor also said that “No additional or special precautions are recommended for Iowans beyond the simple daily precautions to combat the flu including washing hands, frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when ill.”
These announcements came a few days after Congress approved an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to help public health agencies respond to the coronavirus.
On March 11, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, prompting many states to begin taking more serious precautions to reduce the spread of the virus.
Iowa followed suit; Reynolds recommended that schools close for one month, and on March 16 the Iowa Department of Public Health set up two tents outside of the Capitol building in Des Moines to provide medical screenings to everyone who entered. The State Hygienic Lab also opened a second shift that allowed for 108 COVID-19 tests per day.
The next day, Governor Reynolds signed Senate File 2408 into law, which, among other things, allocated additional funds to Medicaid, health programs, and state hygienic laboratories.
Following the implementation of this law was the federal proposal of the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act”, which Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley voted in favor of alongside 90 other senators. However, they also voted in favor of an amendment that would remove paid sick leave from the act.
On March 19, Governor Reynolds announced in a press conference that the State Hygienic Lab can now test 800 people. But the announcement came with a few exceptions. The state’s lab could administer more tests, but only for people who met certain criteria. This criteria excluded a wide range of potentially at risk individuals, seeming only to apply to those who had been hospitalized with potential COVID-19 symptoms or traveled to countries with travel health warnings. While hospitals were not required to receive state approval to administer tests, the state lab reserved the right to refuse to run the test if they felt that the individual failed to meet the criteria.
Iowa began to grow quiet as the month came to an end. Reynolds issued an initial order closing gyms, dine-in at restaurants and bars, and limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer. Further orders halted non-essential medical procedures and closed other businesses, including theaters, spas and hair salons.
Child care centers remained open so parents in essential fields like health care and food production could go to work. Schools were closed and universities extended spring break or moved to short-term online learning in the hopes COVID-19 would be a temporary problem.
The closing of businesses forced many Iowans out of jobs, many wondering when, or if, they would see another paycheck. The Iowa Workforce Development experienced a drastic increase in unemployment claims, comparing the number of claims they were receiving daily to what they would get in the span of a busy month.
March 24 marked the loss of the first Iowan to COVID-19 as well as 145 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The case count broke only 20 cases just 10 days earlier. Despite growing case numbers, Iowa did not issue a shelter in place order like 15 other states had. The state health department’s deputy public health director told Iowans in a press conference that “It’s important to understand that sheltering in place for two or three weeks will not cause the coronavirus to go away”
In an attempt to ease some of the financial burdens created by the pandemic, the U.S. senate passed “phase three” of their coronavirus response bill on a 96-0 vote on March 26. The $2 trillion bill provided a one-time stimulus payment to American adults and their children as well as small business loans, aid for state and local governments, and an expansion of unemployment insurance.
The day after this bill was passed, Iowa Workforce Development announced that 41,890 Iowans had filed for unemployment.
In response to citizens and representatives calling for Reynolds to issue a shelter at home order, the governor issued the statement in a press conference that “[she] believe[s] that Iowans don’t need an order to do the right thing”.
At a press conference on March 29, the deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health projected that Iowa would reach its peak in cases in two to three weeks before emphasizing the numbers were always changing.
In response to this potential peak, Reynolds announced the next day that the state would be getting at least 15 mobile testing units in the coming week that would deliver tests within minutes.
By the end of this unsettling month, four Iowans had died of COVID-19 and Iowa’s case count had increased to more than 300 cases. From March 22 to March 28, Iowa Workforce Development reported that 55,963 Iowans filed for unemployment, the largest one week spike in state history.