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The Scarlet & Black

Soaring COVID rates draw global comparisons in Iowa; Poweshiek County


COVID-19 is surging across the United States and in Iowa in particular. Poweshiek County is no exception, as infection rates continue to rise to the highest levels of the pandemic so far.

Seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases

One in 23 residents of Poweshiek County have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, according to the Iowa Department of Health. In the last month, Poweshiek County has had more COVID-19 cases than in the preceding six months combined. On Nov. 16, 12 more new cases were reported in the county of 19,000 people.

Cumulative cases reported in Poweshiek County

In response to rising case numbers across Iowa, on Nov. 10 Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued new restrictions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This included requiring social distancing for indoor events with more than 10 people, including at restaurants, bars, and recreational establishments. The order requires participants wear masks for indoor gatherings of more than 25 people and for outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people.

Although Reynolds initially stopped short of more drastic measures like a statewide mask mandate, she has since walked back those policies, issuing one on Monday, Nov. 16.

Grinnell Mayor Dan Agnew, who spoke to The S&B before this announcement was made, said that increased complacency as the pandemic wore on is a large factor in Poweshiek County’s recent spike.

“We headed into fall and we had, I would say, individuals or groups [who] sometimes felt that, ‘Oh, maybe it’s over.’ They weren’t masking like they should, they weren’t washing their hands like they should and the social distancing wasn’t being adhered to.”

Of the 2,028 people who have been killed by the novel coronavirus in Iowa, 11 were in Poweshiek County. The number of deaths in Iowa has more than doubled since September, with the number of patients in hospitals and in intensive care several times higher than the initial days of the pandemic.

Number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized or in intensive care units (ICUs) in Iowa

Under Iowa law, Agnew and other local officials did not have the legal power to require masks or enforce social distancing policies in Grinnell — although some cities, like Iowa City, did so before Reynolds’ announcement and were not challenged. Agnew said that he would support a statewide mask mandate, but that he believed he could not introduce one in Grinnell.

Citing Grinnell’s community-based approach to fighting COVID-19, one based more on individual responsibility than city policy, Agnew said that, “Generally speaking, I think it’s been working without having to force some kind of mandate.”

In the absence of state or local regulations in recent months, Agnew and his administration have been working in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce on the Mask Up Grinnell program, which offers branded face coverings and signage encourage citizens to wear masks.

Aside from high school sporting events, Agnew said he was not aware of any large group gatherings held in Grinnell in recent months. “As a matter of fact, we’ve had several, what I would say traditional, large gatherings that have been cancelled.” Specifically, he said that the veterans’ groups cancelled their Veteran’s Day celebrations over health concerns given the age of the participants.

With fall and winter come colder temperatures and holiday festivities. As more people move indoors and into closer contact with each other, the limitations on group gatherings are unlikely to change.

The Iowa Department of Public Health does not report data for individual cities like Grinnell, but the surge in Poweshiek County has coincided with a dramatic uptick in cases across Iowa. For the seven days ended Nov. 16, Iowa averaged 111 new cases per day per 100,000 people; the same figure for Poweshiek County was 100. Deaths are also increasing.

Cumulative COVID-19 deaths in Iowa

Despite efforts to slow the spread of the virus and the recent mandate, Iowa remains one of the worst-affected states in the country, with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the world. Croatia, the country in the European Union with a population closest to Iowa’s, reported an average of 61 new cases per 100,000 people over the last week, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Iowa reported 111 in the same time frame. China, which has a population about 450 times larger than Iowa, reported fewer cases during the last month than Iowa did on the single day of Nov. 16 according to the Johns Hopkins Data.

Comparison of new cases across regions

The area of each square is proportional to the number of cases reported per 100,000 people in each region for the seven days ended Nov. 16. Data from the Iowa Department of Health and Johns Hopkins University.

With infection rates soaring and winter approaching, Agnew’s message to Grinnell Residents is simple.

“Wear a mask, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer and social distance.”

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