Once upon a time, Governor Kim Reynolds postured as an advocate for mask wearing to reduce community transmission of COVID-19. Although she never consistently masked up when near others, and often sent mixed messages about whether face coverings were advisable for everyone or mainly for vulnerable people, she appeared in videos last year that promoted masks as one way to "step up and stop the spread."
The governor stopped touting masks some months ago. In recent interviews and public appearances, she has claimed it's not clear whether face coverings reduce virus transmission in schools, and has asserted that masks can harm children.
The Iowa Department of Public Health has similarly retreated from recommending masks as part of a layered COVID-19 mitigation strategy. The governor's staff have micromanaged the public health agency's communications with the media since the earliest days of the pandemic. At Reynolds' latest news conference, she and a staff member intervened twice to stop IDPH Director Kelly Garcia from answering questions about the benefits of masks.
PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCY RETREATS FROM RECOMMENDING MASKS
At no point in the pandemic was the IDPH a strong voice for universal mask wearing. One illustrative episode happened in September 2020. Agency officials compared data from four school districts in Sioux County. They found that the three districts where masks were not required saw 30 percent to 130 percent more new coronavirus cases than the district that required students and staff to wear face coverings in school buildings.
The logical conclusion would be to mandate or strongly recommend masks in all Iowa schools. But State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati, who leads the IDPH pandemic response team, instead announced that students and staff would no longer need to quarantine after close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, if both people had been wearing masks. The policy contradicted guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
In May, Garcia urged schools and child cares to make masks optional. (That happened a few days before Republican lawmakers approved and Reynolds signed a ban on school mask mandates.) The CDC had updated its recommendations to say fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks in most public settings. In contrast, the IDPH director argued that children too young for vaccines should be able to attend school or day care with no masks, and should not be required to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19, even if both individuals had been unmasked during the close contact.
The IDPH took another step backward in early August, when revised guidance for Iowa school districts did not recommend masks even for unvaccinated people (which would include the entire student body of most elementary schools). That document did not indicate any community advantage from face coverings, saying only that schools "should allow students, teachers, other staff members, and visitors" to wear masks "for reasons that make sense for their family or individual health condition" (emphasis added).
As hospitalizations increased sharply last month, IDPH issued a press release that listed “a number of things Iowans can do to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 and prevent spreading the virus in their communities.” Oddly, that statement urged Iowans to "get vaccinated, “get tested,” and “seek treatment” if sick—but said not one word about wearing masks in public indoor spaces.
GOVERNOR STOPS HEALTH DIRECTOR FROM TALKING ABOUT MASKS
On September 2, Reynolds held her first news conference in months that focused on the pandemic response. Garcia announced upcoming changes to the state's COVID-19 dashboard, which will update some numbers three times a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday) rather than only on Wednesdays, as had been the practice since early July.
Asked about parents who worry that schools are now unsafe for their children, Reynolds claimed there's "data on both sides," and that masks have "negative effects" for some kids. (Scientific research does not support those claims.)
Des Moines Register reporter Stephen Gruber-Miller then asked Garcia, "Would you recommend that students go to school with masks on?"
The governor prevented her public health director from answering. "It doesn't really matter, because it's law at this point," Reynolds said.
Gruber-Miller pointed out that the law bans mask mandates in schools, but does not ban recommendations. The governor insisted, "It is a law that elected officials, that are elected by Iowans and constituents across this state, listened to the people that they represent, passed a bill, sent it to my desk, and it was signed into law."
Communications director Pat Garrett ended the press conference after that exchange, so no one else in the room could follow up by noting that the law in question does not prohibit encouraging students to wear masks.
A few minutes later, Garcia took some questions from reporters. You can listen to the audio here.
Gruber-Miller began by asking again whether Garcia personally recommends that students wear masks in school. She replied,
So I think as the governor answered, there's a law on the books in Iowa, but that doesn't mean a parent can't make their own decision. And as a parent, I send my children to school in masks every day, and I've had that conversation with our health care provider and their teachers.
Asked why she has her children wear masks at school, Garcia said she wouldn't disclose specifics about her family, but "we have some reasons as to why, and I don't want my kids to be sick, and I can't afford for them to bring that home with a breakthrough [infection]," adding that she and her husband are vaccinated for COVID-19.
In other words, Iowa's top public health official did not present mask wearing as a way to protect others or reduce spread in schools. Rather, she framed the concept as a good idea when a child or child's household member has some underlying health condition.
Around two and a half minutes into the gaggle, Eva Andersen from Local 5 News in Des Moines referenced the governor's comment about "data on both sides" regarding masks. She asked Garcia, "Can you acknowledge that the data that they harm people just is so minuscule compared to--"
Garrett interrupted: "I can send some studies that the governor was referencing around."
Andersen turned to Garcia: "Do you have any comment on that?" The IDPH director shook her head to indicate she did not.
Materials Garrett sent reporters later the same day did not include evidence that masks harm children. His email also misrepresented the views of Dr. Michael Osterholm, a leading infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota. While Osterholm has questioned the efficacy of cloth face coverings, he "very strongly" supports universal mask wearing in schools, using "quality" materials such as N95 masks.
In addition, Osterholm believes that in light of the highly transmissible Delta variant, schools "should be pursuing much greater social distancing than the CDC-recommended 3-foot distance." Few Iowa schools are making any effort to establish social distancing, nor is that practice mentioned in the current IDPH guidelines.
State Medical Director Pedati told journalist Andy Kopsa in July, "every time I’m asked, I continue to extol the value of face coverings, social distancing, staying home when you’re sick and getting vaccinated.” But Pedati hasn't participated in one of Reynolds' news conferences for many months, and has rarely made herself available to the media this year.
Iowa's top public health officials still advocate for vaccinations but have mostly stopped offering other science-based COVID-19 recommendations. The governor and her minders appear determined to ensure it stays that way.
Top photo by Laura Belin shows Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg and Governor Kim Reynolds at a September 2, 2021 news conference in the governor's office conference room.