WASHINGTON — Why does it take so long to get COVID-19 test results? How can we take care of elderly parents? Can Congress work around the president, if necessary, to ramp up production of medical equipment?
These were some of the questions Iowans asked Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-1st District, and state public health officials in a telephone town hall Thursday to discuss COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.
“We are all in this together,” Finkenauer tried to assure constituents as she closed the phone call, saying she would take their concerns back to Washington with her next week.” This is a trying time for our communities and health systems and our country. We need to take steps to keep each other safe.”
Finkenauer and the other members of Iowa’s congressional delegation scrambled this week to respond to the virus — both in planning for large-scale legislative responses and in adjusting their own office operations to take into account public health recommendations. Public health officials encourage only gathering in small groups and keeping a six-foot “social distance.”
So Iowa lawmakers this week canceled planned town halls around the state and scheduled tele-town halls instead. Some lawmakers worked from home, holding meetings over the phone or by computer.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Iowa’s senators reported to their offices and meetings but said they shunned handshakes and close conversations.
House lawmakers passed a bill on the issue last week, before they went home for their scheduled one-week “district work period.” The Senate’s previously scheduled recess for this week was canceled, so they could stay in Washington to work on the legislation.
The Senate passed the multibillion-dollar bill Wednesday with broad bipartisan support, and President Donald Trump signed it into law. Iowa Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst both voted in favor of the bill.
The package aims to provide free testing, regardless of a person’s insurance, institute a paid leave program, strengthen food assistance for low-income and pregnant women, and bolster unemployment insurance, among other provisions.
All three of Iowa’s Democratic representatives supported it on the House side. Rep. Steve King, R-4th District, was the lone member of the delegation to oppose it, along with 39 other House Republicans.
‘A very tough time’
Senators are also working on a “phase three” package to focus on the economic effects from the virus, as businesses face major blows. Grassley said he expects the Senate to finish work on the economic bill Friday or over the weekend.
“Now we are looking at the impact on the economy and jobs of Iowans, that has got to be our priority,” Grassley said.
Ernst said one of her top priorities moving forward is relief and getting help for small businesses and their employees.
“This is going to be a very tough time,” Ernst told reporters on a press call this week. “And I hope we are all wrong, and we bounce back, and this virus goes away, but what we can do is do the best we can to stop the spread, and if we can stop the spread, we can get our economy right back on track.”
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iowa climbed to 44 as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a state public health emergency on Tuesday for COVID-19 response and mitigation. The declaration closed bars, theaters and fitness centers and prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people.
As of Thursday, 13 counties had confirmed positive cases: Polk, Muscatine, Dubuque, Johnson, Winneshiek, Washington, Allamakee, Black Hawk, Carroll, Dallas, Harrison, Pottawattamie and Adair counties.
Johnson County has the highest number, with 22 cases. The state labs have also processed 642 negative COVID-19 tests, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month announced that Iowa would receive $6.3 million for COVID-19 response efforts. More federal cash is expected to come.
The public health concern for the virus is that if it spreads quickly, hospitals could be overrun with patients and unable to address other urgent needs. Iowa had three hospital beds per every 1,000 people, according to an analysis of 2018 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The national average is 2.4 beds per 1,000 people.
Social distancing comes to Congress
As businesses shutter and workers are advised to stay at home, Iowa’s lawmakers tried to recalibrate their own operations.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-2nd District, whose district includes the area hardest hit by the virus, closed his physical offices in Washington, D.C., and Iowa. He and his staff have switched to teleworking and are taking constituent requests by phone and email.
“My number one priority is making sure Iowans are safe and get the care they need,” Loebsack said in an email.
Grassley and Ernst worked from their Washington offices and said they would still try to travel back to Iowa, unless health recommendations change.
“My intent is that I will continue to travel back and forth, but should there be additional recommendations, we will take a look at that,” Ernst said. “I am doing my best to maintain that spacing and wash my hands.”
Grassley, who at 86 years old is in a high-risk group for the illness, said he went to his office every day this week but washed his hands more frequently and tried not to shake hands with anyone.
Some Senate procedures have changed. Caucus meetings that used to happen in small rooms just off the Senate floor in the Capitol Building moved to a larger Senate office building.
“There is a great big room, and we sit around a round table with only six people, way spread out,” Grassley told the Iowa Capital Dispatch in a phone interview.
“We’ve been asked not to congregate on the floor of the Senate. When we have conversations, we try to stay five or six feet apart.”
Rep. Cindy Axne, D-3rd District, said her staff is limiting in-person meetings and teleworking when possible, but still trying to meet constituents’ needs with emails and phone calls whenever possible.
“At home, we’re washing our hands regularly and taking other recommended precautions while staying aware and positive,” Axne said. “As a mom of two teenage boys, my husband and I are reinforcing the importance of taking this public health threat seriously so we can all take care of each other and our community.”
Most of Iowa’s delegation has struck a bipartisan tone on the response. When the first questioner in Finkenauer’s town hall asked if Congress could “work around the B.S. of the president,” the congresswoman tried to take a step back in her answer.
“I know everybody has beliefs but we are trying to put Republican and Democrat aside. We’ve got to come together right now,” Finkenauer said. “We all have been frustrated at some of the things we saw, especially the lack of urgency. But we are trying to work together and get things done now.”