Iowa relaxes quarantine guidance despite rapid virus spread

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds announced a policy change Tuesday to make it easier for Iowa students, teachers and business workers exposed to someone with COVID-19 to avoid a two-week quarantine, despite a surge in cases across the state.

Under the new state guidance, workers and children in day cares and schools don’t have to quarantine as long as they and the infected person with whom they were in contact were consistently and correctly wearing face coverings. Only the infected person must go into isolation, while the close contacts should monitor their health.

The change breaks with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which recommends a 14-day quarantine for anyone who is in close contact with someone who has tested positive regardless of mask use.

The Republican governor announced the relaxed guideline during a news conference where she acknowledged that rural counties in the northwest part of the state were suffering from uncontrolled community virus spread affecting all age groups.

With no public health mitigation strategies in place and old routines returning, “the virus is simply spreading from person to person during the normal course of daily activities,” Reynolds said.

Iowa, a state of about 3.2 million people, has been reporting an average of 800 to 900 new confirmed coronavirus cases per day in recent weeks, which gives it one of the nation’s highest infection rates.

The number of patients hospitalized statewide with the virus climbed Tuesday to 376, which was the highest level since late May. The increase has been driven by a surge in northwestern Iowa counties such as Osceola, Lyon and Sioux, which each have a two-week positivity rate of higher than 20%. Fifty long-term care facilities are also facing outbreaks.

Reynolds long ago rejected issuing a statewide mask mandate and has largely refused to implement stricter public health mitigation strategies since reopening the state months ago. She said Tuesday that she was sticking to her strategy of encouraging “simple common-sense steps” such as social distancing and hand washing, saying they were the state’s best defense against the virus.

Reynolds has also ordered school districts return to at least 50% in-person instruction, over the opposition of the state teachers’ union and school leaders in cities such as Des Moines, Iowa City and Ames. The courts have backed her mandate and all districts have reopened classrooms except Des Moines, where students have been learning virtually as the school board considers an October return.

The governor said that virus activity has ticked up as schools have reopened, and that she’s heard a “common frustration” in recent weeks that too many students and teachers were being forced into quarantine.

“In some situations they are having to quarantine a disproportionately high number of students when just a few positive cases have been identified,” she said.

Reynolds and the state epidemiologist, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, said new information indicates that face coverings reduce the spread of the virus in school and business settings. They said the change in guidance was in line with similar moves in Nebraska and Wyoming, which like Iowa, have had some of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the country over the past two weeks.

The new guidance does not apply to health care or residential settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.

The governor said the change would give more flexibility to keep students in schools and had been sought by superintendents. The guidance allows people who are currently in quarantine to be released immediately as long as “a face covering was worn consistently and correctly by the positive case and close contacts during exposure.”

Reynolds called the policy change a “great incentive” to wear a mask, and she said she was encouraged by surveys showing most Iowa residents already do despite the lack of a requirement.

“We’re doing pretty good,” she said. “I’m confident with the direction that we’re going.”

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