During another recording-setting day, in which the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 482 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19, Gov. Kim Reynolds focused on how to “reopen” the state at her press conference on Tuesday.
“As Iowa and the nation prepare to reopen, the ability to conduct large-scale testing is critical to understand how prevalent the disease is and how it’s evolving,” Reynolds said. “The amount of data available will help us start to control the virus, while making evidence-based decisions about how to ease the restrictions that have impacted our daily lives and begin to open up our businesses in a safe and responsible manner.”
The governor then announced that a new testing initiative, Test Iowa, will begin this week.
“This is a public-private partnership between the state of Iowa, Nomi Health and the Silicon Slopes Initiative,” Reynolds said. “This will make available 540,000 COVID-19 tests to increase the state’s testing capacity by up to 3,000 additional tests per day. And that’s in addition to what we are already doing.”
Nomi Health is a Utah-based tech company that specializes in providing record management and payment systems for health care companies. It will be working with several subcontractors that are also tech companies based in Utah. The Silicon Slopes Initiative is Utah nonprofit that connects the state’s start-up and established tech companies. These groups partnered together and were hired by the Utah Department of Health to launch Test Utah at the beginning of April.
Iowa is the second state to hire the group.
The state will pay Nomi $26 million for its part in Test Iowa. At the press conference, Reynolds explained the state will use “some of the federal COVID money” to pay for the program.
According to the contract, Nomi and its partners will deliver “180,000 complete test kits to the State of Iowa” starting on Wednesday, and then it will deliver 90,000 complete test kits during each of the following four months.
“In addition to [providing the test kits], they’ll do the marketing, the website, the outreach, the data,” Reynolds said. “So, that’s all included in the partnership that we have.
The state is responsible for conducting the actual testing, and the tests will be run by the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa.
“Iowa is only the second state in the nation to deploy this ambitious initiative, which includes an online health assessment to determine if individuals should be tested and drive-through testing locations where individuals are swabbed, samples are sent to a lab and results are returned electronically within 48 to 72 hours,” Reynolds said.
The first step for participating in Test Iowa is to go to the website and take the online assessment, which involves answering questions about your current state of health. Users will then be provided with a QR code, which will be used to identify them going forward. The state retains all ownership of data Iowans provide, and Reynolds repeatedly said during the press conference that the data would be kept safe and confidential.
Those the online assessment determines are likely to have COVID-19 will be contacted to schedule an appointment for a drive-through test. If they test positive, the state will conduct contact tracing to study who the infected person may have been in close contact with.
In addition to providing health and contact information, Test Iowa asks people to name their occupation. That’s because the program will begin by prioritizing tests for people with certain jobs.
“We’re going to focus initially on our essential workforce, our health care workers, our first responders, our food supply-chain and some of our manufacturers,” Reynolds explained. “So, we are encouraging hospital staff and long-term care staff to get in there and to do the assessment and get tested.”
“And then we’re going to roll that out so that more Iowans will have the opportunity to take the test and we can continue to schedule based on the amount that’s coming in.”
The first drive-through test session will be held in Des Moines on Saturday.
“More testing sites are planned for other areas of the state, and could open as soon as next week,” Reynolds said.
According to Dave Elkington, a board member of Silicon Slopes Initiative, the key to making Test Iowa effective is to get as many Iowans to fill out the online assessment as possible.
“We need everybody in the state to take the assessment,” Elkington, who joined the press conference over the phone, said. “Once a large group has taken the assessment, we’ll know where to set up the tents and where the hotspots potentially are.”
There are some obvious possibilities for what may be considered a hotspot — 10 counties in Iowa currently have 100 or more residents who have tested positive — but Test Iowa will determine testing locations based on the data collected through the website.
Test Iowa isn’t just relying on the initial assessments for data. Everyone who takes the assessment will receive a daily request for an update on their status, either by email or fax. Elkington said the daily questions should only take between one and three minutes to answer.
Test Iowa’s strategy for convincing as many people as possible to sign up is to post videos about the program on social media. The first video featured Gov. Reynolds asking people to take part. Reynolds then tagged six prominent Iowans, who are supposed to tag others to continue the effort to encourage registration.
The six Reynolds selected were Ashton Kutcher, Sen. Joni Ernst, Sen. Chuck Grassley, sportscaster Keith Murphy, Pastor Mike Householder and Carson King.
The 482 new cases of COVID-19 IDPH reported on Tuesday included 69 residents of Johnson County and 51 residents of Linn County. The new cases bring the total number of Iowans who have tested positive for COVID-19 to 3,641.
Newly reported cases of COVID-19 by county
• Allamakee: 4
• Benton: 1
• Black Hawk: 107
• Bremer: 4
• Butler: 1
• Cherokee: 1
• Clayton: 1
• Clinton: 2
• Dallas: 3
• Delaware: 1
• Dickinson: 1
• Dubuque: 2
• Fayette: 1
• Grundy: 1
• Hardin: 1
• Henry: 2
• Humboldt: 1
• Jasper: 11
• Jefferson: 1
• Johnson: 69
• Jones: 1
• Linn: 51
• Louisa: 27
• Madison: 1
• Marshall: 51
• Muscatine: 12
• Osceola: 1
• Plymouth: 1
• Polk: 28
• Poweshiek: 1
• Scott: 8
• Tama: 26
• Washington: 3
• Winneshiek: 1
• Woodbury: 37
• Wright: 1
• County unknown: 19
IDPH also reported four more deaths from the virus on Tuesday. The deceased include a resident of Linn County over the age of 80.
Newly reported deaths by county.
• Linn County, 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Polk County, 1 older adult (61-80 years), 2 elderly adults (81+)
The state’s COVID-19 death-toll now stands at 83, according to IDPH.
The governor’s office sent out a press release on Tuesday afternoon stating that 157 of 482 new cases were discovered during the extensive testing surrounding outbreaks at certain meat packing plants. According to the governor’s office, “100 were Tyson employees and 57 were National Beef employees.”
There have now been cases of COVID-19 reported in seven of the state’s 18 meat processing plants. The most recent cases were reported at the JBS pork processing plant in Marshalltown. According to the city’s mayor, 34 of the plant’s approximately 2,400 employees have tested positive for the virus.
That number isn’t high enough to qualify for IDPH’s definition of an outbreak at a business. According to IDPH, a business is experiencing an outbreak when 10 percent or more of its employees test positive.
IDPH also has not officially declared an outbreak at the Tyson meat processing plant in Waterloo, although local health officials say most of Black Hawk County’s 366 confirmed cases of COVID-19 are linked to the plant.
Last week, 20 elected officials in Black Hawk County signed a letter to Tyson Foods asking the company to temporarily close the plant. The company has not done so. On Tuesday morning, the Black Hawk County Board of Health voted unanimously to ask Tyson to temporarily close the plant, and if the company won’t, to ask the governor to order the plant to close.
Gov. Reynolds has been clear that she has no plans to order any meat processing plants to close.
“We have farmers who are raising hogs, we are the largest hog producer in the country,” Reynolds said during her press conference on Monday. “We provide a third of the nation’s pork supply, about 25 million a year. [sic] And so, if we aren’t able to move them through the process, at some point we’re going to have to be talking about euthanizing hogs. And we’re not that far from.”
“It would be devastating, not only for the food supply, but for the cost of food going forward.”
Asked on Tuesday why she thinks keeping the Waterloo plant open is worth the risk to public health and the health of the plant’s workers, Reynolds offered some insight into how she thinks about the spread of COVID-19.
“Well, first of all, we want to make sure we’re protecting the health and well-being of all Iowans, and I want people to know that probably 50 to 70 percent of the United States population is projected to get this [COVID-19],” she replied. “So, people are going to get it. It is very contagious, especially in large gatherings. And 80 percent of individuals that get it are only going to experience mild or no symptoms. So, we shouldn’t lose sight of that as well.
“So, we really need to focus on the individuals who are vulnerable, who have underlying conditions and do everything we can to mitigate their exposure.”