Amid COVID-19 surge, state orders traveling nurses for Iowa hospitals

As Iowa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations reach levels not seen since December 2020, the state is contracting for 100 traveling nurses and respiratory therapists to be deployed in hospitals around Iowa.

Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand did not list the participating hospitals but said in a December 7 email that the deployment will support seventeen facilities “that provide 1, 2, and 3 Trauma Level care.”

Communications staff for Mercy Cedar Rapids, MercyOne (which operates hospitals in Des Moines, West Des Moines, Dubuque, Clinton, Sioux City, and Waterloo), Genesis Health System in Davenport, and UnityPoint’s Allen Hospital in Waterloo confirmed to Bleeding Heartland that they will receive some of the staffing assistance.

Ekstrand said the deployment “will enhance capacity, reduce ED [emergency department] wait room times, facilitate additional transfers of critically ill patients and reduce strain at lower level trauma care facilities allowing their teams to focus on care for those who are less critically ill.”

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Ten ways Dr. Caitlin Pedati failed Iowans

State Medical Director and Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati is leaving the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) in late October, the agency announced on September 22.

The leader of Iowa’s COVID-19 response had hardly been seen in public all year and granted few media interviews. Pedati was an occasional speaker at Governor Kim Reynolds’ televised news conferences during the first eight months of the pandemic, but had not appeared at one since November 2020.

The unexplained departure raised questions about whether Pedati walked or was forced out. Reynolds’ new spokesperson Alex Murphy told Bleeding Heartland via email that no one in the governor’s office asked the medical director to leave. “This was a personal decision by Dr. Pedati.” Murphy also said the governor won’t pick her successor; rather, IDPH Director Kelly Garcia “and her team will handle the hiring.”

I’ll be seeking records that could show whether Pedati (a board-certified pediatrician) disagreed with any aspects of Iowa’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy, such as grossly inadequate guidance for schools or the retreat from recommending masks, even for unvaccinated people crowded together indoors.

Whether or not Pedati had any private misgivings, she repeatedly failed to keep Iowans safe or adequately informed during this pandemic, which has already killed more than 1 in 500 Iowa residents who were alive eighteen months ago.

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Health agency hiring temporary help with public records requests

The Iowa Department of Public Health is hiring a temporary staffer to assist public information officer Sarah Ekstrand in processing open records requests. The job listing says the new hire will help review and update the agency’s system for tracking requests, communicate with members of the public about the status of requests, help refine search terms, provide cost estimates, and review documents to see if they can be withheld as confidential.

The application deadline for the position was September 16. The temporary hire will be paid between $26.61 and $40.50 an hour, for at most 780 hours of work in the current fiscal year. That works out to about 20 weeks of full-time efforts devoted to processing records requests between now and June 30, 2022.

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1 in 500 Iowans have died of COVID-19

At least 6,390 Iowans have died of COVID-19, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control statistics published on September 13. That’s just over one in 500 of the 3,190,369 Iowans who were living in the state as of April 1, 2020 (the U.S. Census Bureau’s resident population count).

The state’s COVID-19 dashboard, which lags behind federal data and is updated less frequently, now shows 6,337 total deaths. Sara Anne Willette draws on federal databases when updating her Iowa COVID-19 Tracker website, which now shows 6,392 total deaths.

Statistics compiled by the New York Times indicate that Iowa is the 25th state to pass the grim milestone of losing one in 500 residents in the pandemic. The highest per capita fatality rates are mostly found in densely populated northeastern states, where the novel virus spread widely before mitigation practices were in place, or in the deep South.

Among the states bordering Iowa, South Dakota has the highest fatality rate, followed by Illinois. Missouri’s per capita deaths are a little lower than Iowa’s, while Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska have all lost far fewer residents than Iowa as a percentage of their populations.

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Exclusive: Other agencies covered $900K in governor's office costs

Governor Kim Reynolds’ office was able to spend nearly 40 percent more than its $2.3 million budget appropriation during the last fiscal year, mostly by shifting personnel costs onto other state agencies.

Documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through public records requests show that eight state agencies covered $812,420.83 in salaries and benefits for nine employees in the governor’s office from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. In addition, the Office for State-Federal Relations in Washington, DC remained understaffed, as it has been throughout Reynolds’ tenure. The vacant position should allow roughly $85,000 in unspent funds to be used to balance the rest of the governor’s office budget, as happened last year.

The governor’s communications director Pat Garrett did not respond to four inquiries over the past two weeks related to the office budget. But records indicate that unlike in 2020, federal COVID-19 relief funds will not be tapped to cover salaries for Reynolds’ permanent staffers in fiscal year 2021.

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Governor muzzles public health experts on masks

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.

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