Guest post by Preethi Reddi, an Iowan currently studying at the Medical College of Georgia
In May, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the four other Republican governors who elected against stay-at-home orders prematurely published an editorial in the Washington Post titled, “Our states stayed open in the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s why our approach worked.”
Recent data contradict this bold title and point to a need for change in Reynolds’ less aggressive approach to controlling COVID-19 spread.
In the past two weeks, Iowa cities have led in the number of new COVID-19 cases, but Reynolds continues to dismiss the White House coronavirus task force’s recommendations for a mask mandate, bar closures in 61 of 99 Iowa counties, and limits on the size of social gatherings.
Iowa leaders must acknowledge data suggesting pitfalls in their policies and messaging to work toward a new approach that better protects the health and safety of their constituents.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in May compared COVID-19 rates in eight Iowa counties and seven Illinois counties along the Mississippi River. At the start of the study, COVID-19 rates were similar across the Iowa and Illinois border counties. However, results showed that COVID-19 cases increased more rapidly on the Iowa side of the river, compared to Illinois counties following that state’s enactment of a stay-at-home order. These Iowa counties continue to have higher COVID-19 cases per capita than bordering Illinois counties. These data are consistent with another study that showed an association between reduced COVID-19 cases and a statewide stay-at-home order in California.
While Iowa’s mitigation policies resembled the stay-at-home orders implemented by other states, these findings should be considered. Several factors may have contributed to a more rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in Iowa counties. The power of the messaging effect must be acknowledged. In a U.S. News article, Dr. George Wehby, a co-investigator in the JAMA study, suggests there may be greater alertness around individual behaviors in states with stay at home orders, such as staying 6 feet apart from others. In addition, local testing capacity may have affected the findings of this study.
This past week, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst echoed President Donald Trump in showing skepticism over the COVID-19 death toll, insinuating the presence of a lower death toll than reported. This skepticism has been debunked by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
Ernst further displayed distrust toward health care professionals by stating, “These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Statements like these are not only undermining the expertise and work of health care professionals, but also diminishing of the experiences of those affected by COVID-19.
In an interview with CNN, Dr. Austin Baeth, a physician at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines, characterized Ernst’s comments as “insulting.” He conveyed the risks held by health care professionals during this pandemic, stating, “We have colleagues who have gotten sick. We’ve had colleagues across the country who have died. While we are making these sacrifices, we’re being accused of insurance fraud.” Dr. Baeth further states that Ernst’s downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic “gives free room for deniers to act recklessly.”
Hayley Ellis, a resident of Des Moines, described facing COVID-19 symptoms as “one of the most awful experiences” of her life. Given her experience, Ellis finds it especially difficult to see friends and family continue to diminish the serious reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Iowa politicians continue to downplay the pandemic, Ellis notes, “the less seriously people will take it.”
While Ernst seemingly backpedaled her skepticism, it is important to recognize the importance of confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs. As misinformation surrounding COVID-19 continues to spread, those who deny the serious nature of the pandemic will continue to search for any form of validation for their beliefs. Ernst’s previous remarks, especially coming from her position of power, dangerously provide a reason for these individuals to further validate their misconceptions and downplay the pandemic.
As I continue to see many of my friends fear for their health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, I also see many of my former classmates spreading anti-mask propaganda on social media. As a future health care professional, I fear the messages of politicians are contributing to growing distrust and invalidation towards my field — a field aimed to protect the health of the public.
I implore Iowa politicians to carefully consider their messaging and ensure their policies and statements are guided by data, science, and the health and safety of Iowans. I further call upon Reynolds to adhere to the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s recommendations, including a statewide mask mandate and closing bars in 61 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
By Preethi Reddi, an Iowan currently studying at the Medical College of Georgia
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