Iowa governor Kim Reynolds’s reluctance to embrace stringent coronavirus lockdown measures resulted in a case spike in November and guaranteed certain disaster over the holidays, according to an ominous story featured prominently on The Atlantic’s website in December.
Titled “Iowa Is What Happens When Government Does Nothing,” the article, written by Iowa native Elaine Godfrey and published on December 3, attributed the brief statewide spike in cases and hospitalizations to Reynolds’s insistence on weighing economic factors when making decisions about COVID, and predicted that the state “can expect to see nothing less than a tsunami” over the upcoming holiday season.
“We know the storm’s coming,” Iowa epidemiologist Eli Perencevich — an outspoken liberal on Twitter — told Godfrey. “You can see it on the horizon.”
The Atlantic’s autopsy laid the blame for the fall spike — and expected holiday “tsunami” — squarely at Reynolds’s feet, arguing that “the story of the coronavirus in this state is one of government inaction in the name of freedom and personal responsibility” and that the Republican had a “let-them-get-sick attitude.”
The article cited Reynolds’s decision to reopen gyms, bars, and restaurants in early May after a brief lockdown — and her refusal to implement a statewide mask mandate until November — as evidence of her failure to grasp the threat posed by COVID.
Godfrey also reported that “four of the doctors and nurses I interviewed laughed — actually laughed” when she asked about Reynolds’s decision to implement a mask mandate and limits on gatherings amid the surge. “The policies will do basically nothing to prevent the spread of the virus, they told me.”
The article did note that, at the time of publishing, cases had dropped in late November, but chocked it up to “a possible result of a warm spell in Iowa.”
“Perencevich and other public-health experts predict that the state’s lax political leadership will result in a ‘super peak’ over the holidays, and thousands of preventable deaths in the weeks to come,” it stated.
However, a “super peak” did not materialize over Christmas and New Year’s. Per The Atlantic’s own “COVID Tracking Project,” cases in Iowa have fallen by 47.8 percent and hospitalizations have declined by 52.7 percent since December 3.
“December became a decline, instead of this meteoric rise,” Suresh Gunasekaran, CEO of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, told National Review. Gunasekaran, who runs the largest health-care system in the state, emphasized that the situation in November was serious — at one point, 70 to 80 percent of UIHC’s 850 beds were filled with patients from all over the state. But Gunasekaran said that, with the virus impacting communities far and wide, people took notice on their own.
“Ultimately the infection rate is a reflection on the behavior of our citizens,” he said. “And I think that as the crisis peaked, people took it more seriously.”
While cases rose slightly in following New Year’s, Iowa and its fellow Midwest states — which were also peaking in November — are currently in much better shape than other regions of the country.
In an email, Perencevich admitted that he was “very pleased the Iowans responded to the Governor’s mask mandate and her group-size restrictions,” and that he believed college and school closings over the holiday season were also beneficial.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” he caveated. “I would be concerned that with high test positivity (averaging 13%) in the State and high cases loads, that reopened schools and the recent removal of group size restrictions could result in higher cases going forward if we don’t remain vigilant.” He noted that health officials in Polk County are currently worried of a late-January surge.
To Gunasekaran, the primary issue is not zeroing in on the particular effectiveness of government-issued mask mandates or lockdowns, but rather that “the facts of life are pandemic fatigue is a real phenomenon nationally.”
“You can’t outrun the science and math of the moment when the public isn’t going to follow the safety guidelines, social distancing, masking, avoiding gatherings, the numbers continue to return . . . I’m just like everybody else — six, eight, nine months into this, it’s really hard to constantly restrict your activities at all times,” he explained. “Unfortunately, the public-health impact of that is going to be that we see this rise in cases. And so, I do feel like what happened to Iowa in November is being witnessed over and over again nationally.”
Godfrey based much of her argument a November 18 New York Times article titled “States That Imposed Few Restrictions Now Have the Worst Outbreaks.” The “analysis clearly showed that states with the tightest COVID-19 restrictions have managed to keep cases per capita lower than states with few restrictions,” she explained.
But the Times analysis relies on a one-day snapshot of COVID cases and hospitalizations, taken on November 16, well after the virus ripped through states such as New York and California, which have implemented some of the strictest containment measures for months. Now, cases are once again surging in those states, meaning that a look on either side of the Times snapshot would complicate its thesis.
According to the CDC, states such as California and New York, which have had tight restrictions in place for months, now have worse case and death rates over the last seven days than Iowa has. Yet earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo argued in his State of the State address that New York “simply cannot stay closed.”
As for the argument that Iowa needed to follow the same path as New York or California, Gunasekaran said that “restrictions were key to preventing Iowa hospitals from being overwhelmed this winter, but in the summer restrictions were less important because people were a lot more open to modifying their behavior.”
“Ultimately, whatever causes the public to behave differently is the most effective strategy,” he stated. “And I think over the course of the pandemic, you’re just going to have to use different techniques.”
Gunasekaran added that media coverage often misses the mark when it posits doomsday predictions or tries to explain case surges through a political lens.
“The communities that have this best under control are not trying to figure out whose fault it is, they’re trying to figure out how to work together to keep everyone safe,” he said. In Iowa, “government came together, businesses came together, we all came together to flatten the curve and bring down the infection rate. Whatever can facilitate cooperation is the story that we need the media to talk about.”
“When we see these infection rates, we want to immediately ascribe blame to one criteria or the other, and honestly it’s pretty irresponsible,” he continued. “The real issue is, this is a reflection on how well the community, as a whole, is doing.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a comment from Eli Perencevich.