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U. Iowa researchers project hundreds more COVID-19 deaths

May 15, 2020 GMT
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Dr. Charles Collins gets his hair cut by barber Lannie Hale at the Waveland Barber Stylist shop, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. Friday was the first day Hale was allowed to reopen his shop after being closed for nearly two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Dr. Charles Collins gets his hair cut by barber Lannie Hale at the Waveland Barber Stylist shop, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. Friday was the first day Hale was allowed to reopen his shop after being closed for nearly two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — University of Iowa researchers warned that the coronavirus would continue spreading through the state even before Gov. Kim Reynolds reopened restaurants and churches, a move they said would exacerbate the problem, documents released Friday show.

The researchers, including some of the state’s top epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, also warned that hundreds more residents will likely die through the end of May even if widespread business closures remained in effect.

“Evidence shows that COVID-19 will continue to spread in Iowa, likely at an increasing rate,” the team led by Dr. Joseph Cavanaugh, head of the university’s biostatistics department, concluded in a May 4 paper.

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Reynolds has downplayed the importance of such models and continued her push to reopen the economy, despite surging numbers of deaths this week. Restaurants, gyms, barber shops and salons reopened Friday in 22 counties, including the state’s largest metropolitan areas, where they had been closed for two months.

On Friday, the governor said she appreciated the university’s work but that she was relying on real-time data from hospitals and testing to manage the state’s pandemic response. She said she was encouraged by increased testing, declining numbers of positive tests statewide and the amount of hospital resources available.

She also warned that not reopening the state would have a “social cost,” including high unemployment, rising domestic abuse and food insecurity.

The Iowa Department of Public Health had asked experts at the UI College of Public Health for technical assistance forecasting the pandemic’s severity in Iowa.

A contract signed last month said the modeling would be for the state’s internal use and barred the school from releasing any findings for a year. The department released the university’s latest two reports Friday in response to media inquiries.

In a report to the Iowa Department of Public Health on April 27, the research team said that Iowa had not reached a peak and reopening the state economy before then would “result in a rapid rise of cases.” Nonetheless, the governor announced that day that restaurants, malls and stores could reopen in 77 counties and in-person church services could resume statewide effective May 1.

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In a paper dated May 4, the researchers found that the virus was still likely spreading in Iowa communities. They said that school and business closures and ban on gatherings of more than 10 people had strongly mitigated the amount of infection but nonetheless were not “sufficient to prevent uncontained spread” by themselves.

“The State of Iowa is sufficiently interconnected that we expect continued growth of COVID-19, even in the absence of any measures to relax social distancing or to reopen previously closed businesses and religious institutions,” they wrote. “Importantly, even though much of the recent spread in Iowa has been attributed to clusters (e.g., workplaces, long-term care facilities), continued increase in community spread is expected.”

They said the governor’s decision to reopen restaurants, churches and other businesses would increase social contacts and therefore the rate of transmission. But they also said the impact of the partial reopening likely would not be known for several weeks.

The researchers said the state’s observed deaths, which jumped by 18 to 336 on Friday, closely tracked their projections from an earlier paper. That research forecast a median outcome of 747 deaths by May 28.

Reynolds has called the deaths, including 65 over the past four days, a “lagging indicator” of the pandemic’s severity because they happen after several days of illness.

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