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Gov. Kim Reynolds says rural Iowans need to be vigilant, too: 'COVID-19 does not discriminate based on geography'

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called on rural Iowans to remain vigilant against the spread of the novel coronavirus Thursday as cases surge across the state and threaten to overwhelm the health care system. 

"We're seeing significant community spread across our entire state, both in our metro and rural communities," she said at a news conference Thursday. "COVID-19 does not discriminate based on geography. The virus is present in all of our communities, and all of us can help stop its spread."

She said that although the state's most populous counties have the most cases, smaller ones are "far exceeding them" when cases are looked at as a percentage of population. 

Since Nov. 1, Polk County saw 4,486 new cases, Reynolds said. That is 921 cases per 100,000 people. Polk County has a population of about 490,000 people. 

Pocahontas County, which has a population of about 6,700, reported 143 new cases during the same time frame. That is the equivalent of 2,122 cases per 100,000 people. 

But Reynolds sought to reassure Iowans that while hospitals are seeing a sharp increase in patient volume, they are not turning away people seeking care.

"We continue to closely monitor hospitalizations throughout each day to ensure that resources remain stable," she said.

On Tuesday, Reynolds announced some new mask requirements for some mass gatherings in the state. The Republican governor did not announce any new mitigation measures on Thursday. 

More:A big wedding reception? Yes. The movies? Not necessarily. Here's where Iowa does and does not require masks

'Uncontrolled community spread'

Reynolds and public health officials have pleaded with Iowans to take action to stem the spread of the virus.

On Tuesday morning, Dr. Meghan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist working as a consultant for Polk County, warned local officials that "we're at a critical point" of the pandemic.

Nearly 200 patients were being treated for COVID-19 in Des Moines hospitals then, double the hospital population two weeks ago, she said. Without drastic change in people's behavior, hospitals could have 400 COVID-19 patients in Des Moines by Thanksgiving, she warned.

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Nearly 45,000 Iowans tested positive for the virus in the last two weeks. That represents more than a quarter of all positive coronavirus tests since the first confirmed cases in Iowa on March 8.

As of Thursday afternoon, the state was reporting that 1,930 Iowans had died with COVID-19. In the last seven days, an average of 18 Iowans died per day from it. 

State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati said Thursday morning that it’s no longer possible to pinpoint an age group of people or an activity that is disproportionately causing the outbreak.

“We’re really seeing what I would call uncontrolled community spread,” Pedati told the State Board of Health, which advises the health department.

Earlier in the pandemic, public health officials could spot clusters coming from specific workplaces or nursing homes, or among young adults going to bars and restaurants, Pedati said.

“Really what we’re seeing at this point are cases being reported from people of all ages in all settings across the state of Iowa," she said. 

Test Iowa contract extended

To continue to stay alert to those who have the virus, the state is buying another 360,000 coronavirus tests from Utah-based Nomi Health, the company behind the Test Iowa program.

While the entire $26 million contract, signed in April, runs for a calendar year, some provisions of it expired in October. 

Iowa still hasn't run out of that initial coronavirus test distributions for which it arranged, Reynolds said. She said she anticipates the remaining 140,000 test kits already on hand will last until about Dec. 11.

The additional test kits will cost the state about $3.42 million and be paid for out of relief money from the federal CARES Act.

Reynolds said the Test Iowa sites, which had scarce appointments before they closed for Veteran's Day on Wednesday, will be adding 200 additional appointments per day. The five drive-thru sites operated by the state are testing more than 4,000 Iowans per day, and all the Test Iowa sites are testing more than 6,000 people day, she said.

"Even now there are still states that struggle with testing capacity, and we're extremely fortunate to have a strong public-private partnership with Nomi Health and our team at the State Hygienic Lab, and it's important that continues," Reynolds said.

More:White House experts warn Iowa: 'Unyielding COVID spread' requires stronger steps

Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at ncoltrain@registermedia.com or at 515-284-8361.