IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence has called Iowa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic “a success story” but he may find a less rosy reality when he arrives Friday.
Pence is expected to visit the Des Moines metropolitan area, where a recent rise in confirmed infections has alarmed the mayor and medical officials. Even the federal coronavirus task force Pence leads has expressed concern.
Pence is scheduled to meet faith leaders to encourage them to resume in-person church services in a responsible fashion, though many have said they’ll refrain for now to stop the virus’s spread. He’s also expected to discuss food supply with grocery and agriculture leaders, which has been stressed by outbreaks at meatpacking plants that have slowed production.
More than 100 patients with COVID-19 are hospitalized in Polk County, which includes Des Moines, and the president of a major hospital system told his staff Tuesday that Iowa’s estimated rate of transmission for the virus remains among the highest in the nation.
“Our community spread of the virus remains high,” said Karl Keeler, of MercyOne Central Iowa. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Pence will be about 30 miles from a Tyson Foods pork plant in Perry where 730 employees — nearly 60% of its workforce — have tested positive for the coronavirus. Jorge Soto, 23, said his aunt is one of them and has been hospitalized this week.
“What’s a little heartbreaking is I can’t hold a conversation with her. After every fifth word she has shortness of breath and starts coughing,” Soto said of the longtime plant worker who is in her 50s and has two children.
Rossanna Rosa, a Des Moines infectious disease doctor, called the situation at the Perry plant “a scandal” that has sickened many immigrants and refugees.
Rosa said she often feels “hopeless” and “helpless” offering care for patients when no vaccine or reliable treatment is available. She said hospitals are admitting new patients while treating others who have been there for weeks.
“That is very worrisome in terms of resource utilization,” she said. “At what point do we max out?”
At the White House on Wednesday, Pence praised Gov. Kim Reynolds and said Iowa has been “leading the pack.” Hours later, Reynolds signed an order to allow malls, retailers and gyms in Des Moines and other cities to reopen Friday.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said he worried the state was reopening too quickly without adequate testing in place and potentially two to four weeks before the virus hits a peak in the state.
Cownie announced that he would keep city buildings closed and not allow the Des Moines Farmers Market or any festivals until July 1. His moves came after what he called a surprising and significant outbreak over a one-week period that more than doubled Polk County’s confirmed cases, which exceed 2,000.
“My biggest worry is that if we don’t do this strategically and incrementally and responsibly, we’re going to see a further spread that would overwhelm our health care facilities,” Cownie said. “We can see an economic recovery but if you lose your life because of some wrong decisions, there is no tomorrow.”
Cownie said the city is losing $10 million per month in revenue due to the pandemic-driven slowdown, and would like federal funding to maintain critical services. He said a major increase in testing needs to happen to get the economy back on track.
The governor says Iowa has been averaging 2,900 tests daily, a substantial increase from a month ago. Still, that’s short of what experts say is needed for Iowa to reopen safely, and many people say they are unable to get tested.
That includes Linda Bennett, 59, of Des Moines, who signed up for the TestIowa program on April 21, the day Reynolds announced it. Her online assessment said her symptoms make her eligible for a test but that no appointments are available. Her husband and son have also had no luck.