On social media, cable news and in communities across Iowa, talk of coronavirus and its rapid spread in the U.S. is dominating conversations between friends, co-workers and strangers.
Wednesday afternoon, at the YMCA in Burlington, an employee jokingly told his colleagues, “I’m waiting on the pope to call it a biblical event.”
The TVs, turned to CNN and MSNBC, both broadcast coverage of the pandemic, and signs plastered at locker room entrances reminded people of “The 3 C’s: Cover, Clean, Contain.”
As in other parts of the state, a university in Southeast Iowa has extended its spring break and temporarily moved classes online.
At Iowa Wesleyan University, in Mount Pleasant, an internal task force was assembled by the university’s president to map out short and long-term plans. On Thursday afternoon, the university said it was extending students’ spring break by a week and would conduct classes online until at least April 3.
Southeastern Community College, with campuses in West Burlington and Keokuk, established a landing page on its website for up-to-date information on coronavirus, but has yet to alter campus operations.
“SCC is taking all appropriate measures and will continue to follow the expert guidance of the Iowa Department of Public Health and related governmental agencies,” the college said. “Consistent with this guidance, we have no plans to alter, cancel, or suspend regular college operations at this time.”
In the U.S., confirmed coronavirus cases have surpassed 1,200, causing some universities to suspend in-person classes, large events to be canceled and a limit on fans at sporting events.
As of Wednesday afternoon — the last update provided by the Iowa Department of Public Health — there are 14 positive cases of coronavirus in the state, all but one of which are located in Johnson County. The other case is in Pottawattamie County.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has held regular press conferences over the last few days to keep the press and public informed, though official channels have been light on details about the infected Iowans.
President Donald Trump addressed the nation Wednesday night from the Oval Office, in part to announce travel restrictions from Europe to the U.S.
“It’s hard to know who to trust,” said Debra Metz, at the Corner Tap in West Point. “Trump is so unpredictable and untrustworthy that I really have a hard time believing what he says, and that’s a terrible place to be in in the midst of a crisis.”
Navigator Research conducted an online survey March 6-8 of 1,000 registered voters across the country to gather reactions to coronavirus and Trump’s handling of the outbreak.
According to the survey, 56% of respondents don’t trust Trump to “take the time to learn the details and understand the challenges of the outbreak” and don’t believe he will “tell Americans the truth” about the spread of the disease.
In a conversation with Iowa reporters last week, Sen. Joni Ernst described coronavirus and the flu as one in the same.
“The $8.3 billion, it is a large price tag, but we want to make sure the administration has the resources necessary to deal with this,” Ernst said, referencing the coronavirus funding bill signed by President Trump. “With the coronavirus, again, it is the flu. We need to understand, it is the flu. But it is still a new strain of the flu, and not fully understanding how this virus might adapt and change, we just want to make sure that we are getting resources out to our public health officials as quickly as possible so that we can curb any additional outbreaks and effectively treat those that might end up suffering from the coronavirus.”
Although coronavirus and influenza both are infectious respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. And unlike the flu, no vaccine currently is available to treat coronavirus patients. Early reports also show the death rate for coronavirus is significantly higher than that of the common flu.
Life in the southern corner of Iowa so far has continued largely uninterrupted, though some retirement communities and nursing homes in the area are taking precautions.
The Madison Health Center and Sunnybrook Assisted Living in Fort Madison, as well as the Sunrise Terrace Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Winfield, are among the places putting visitation restrictions in place.
“Currently there are no symptoms or cases at our community,” Sunnybrook said Tuesday in a statement. “Taking these additional precautions will help prevent the transmission of these illnesses and protect the health of our residents.”
Gina Hardin, emergency management coordinator in Des Moines County, recently convened a meeting with the county’s health care coalition and local nursing homes “just to make sure they had their plans updated, if they had any specific questions or concerns about the virus.”
For Mary Sleet, the risk to the elderly was her main concern.
“My mom is 85,” Sleet said, as she purchased a cup of coffee and some gas at Casey’s in Mediapolis. “Luckily, she still lives at home. If she was in a nursing home I think I’d be a lot more worried, but it’s still concerning. I’ve talked to her about limiting her time running errands and that kind of stuff.”
Sleet hasn’t taken extra precautions other than washing her hands more frequently and purchasing one of the few bottles of hand sanitizer left on a shelf at Walmart.
“No, I don’t think people are overreacting,” she said, “though I am annoyed by the people buying up all the cleaning supplies and toilet paper and stuff. I think that’s unnecessary.”
Brad Knoller, also in the check-out line, chimed in about conversations he’s had with co-workers.
“Talk to five different people and you’ll get five different reactions,” Knoller said. “Some people who watch Fox think it’s all a hoax to weaken the president and others that watch CNN are convinced this is the apocalypse. I fall somewhere in the middle.”
Knoller receives a flu shot each year at work and said he wasn’t worried about catching coronavirus. His 401(k), however, was concerning.
“I’m hoping to retire soon, but the way the stock market is right now, I don’t even want to look,” he said. “This could very well delay my retirement by a year or two.”
By Elizabeth Meyer