COVID lawsuit immunity strikes ‘balance,’ Reynolds says

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs into law House File 2627, which makes changes to the state's professional licensing requirements, during a ceremony at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Iowa in Grimes, Iowa, on Thursday, June 25, 2020. Photo by Erin Murphy.

GRIMES  — Despite an inspection report that workers kept working while displaying COVID-19 symptoms and were later diagnosed with the virus in a Dubuque nursing home where 11 residents have died of the virus, Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday expressed no regret for signing new legislation that shields businesses from many virus-related lawsuits.

Reynolds signed the new law, pushed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, a week ago. Republicans argued the protections were needed so Iowa businesses could reopen without fear of frivolous lawsuits, while Democrats warned it would remove critical protections for workers at long-term care facilities and manufacturing plants where the virus has spread rapidly and led to hundreds of deaths.

This week, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that records from the state inspections and appeals department showed one worker in a Dubuque nursing home worked three shifts without wearing protective equipment while showing symptoms, and that the home’s administrator also worked while displaying symptoms. Both later tested positive for the virus, the records showed.

According to state records, 11 residents at the home have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

Reynolds on Thursday was asked if that report gave her any pause for approving the new law, Senate File 2338

“It’s a balance,” Reynolds said at a bill-signing event. “We want to make sure that we have doctors and nurses and care facilities that are willing to provide these critical services, and we want to make sure that businesses feel confident in opening back up. But the bill also has appropriate exemptions that still permit some lawsuits for reckless or willful misconduct. So I think it strikes the balance that it needs to.”

Reynolds said what was reported at the Dubuque nursing home was “something that shouldn’t happen,” but also praised “a lot of long-term care facilities that are doing a phenomenal job.”

The Iowa chapter of the AARP on Thursday called for immediate, mandatory testing of staff and residents in all nursing home and long-term care facilities across the state.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the families of three workers who died after contracting the coronavirus in an Iowa meat plant outbreak sued Tyson Foods and its top executives, saying the company knowingly put employees at risk and lied to keep them on the job.

Reynolds on Thursday extended the state’s current public health emergency by another month, through July 25. Under the current statewide proclamation, businesses are allowed to be open at full capacity, but must employ social distancing measures.

The proclamation also clarified that high schools may resume athletic competitions. That put in writing a practice the governor already allowed: teams have been playing since June 15. At least a half-dozen have already temporarily shut down their seasons due to positive coronavirus tests.

Statewide, Iowa’s most critical coronavirus numbers continue to trend in a positive direction. The seven-day average of new deaths, at 2.4, is at its lowest since early April, in the early stages of the virus’ impact on Iowa.

The seven-day average number of Iowans currently hospitalized by the virus is at its lowest since mid-April, and the seven-day average of new, virus-related hospital admissions is lower than it has been since the state started publishing the data in early April. But the rate of spread has increased to 1.02, which means each case, on average, infects another 1.02 people. Anything over 1.0 indicates active spread in the state.

Reynolds said the rate of positive tests on Tuesday dipped below 10% for the first time: she said the positivity rate was 9.9% on Tuesday and 9.8% on Thursday.

“We’re asking Iowans to still be responsible for your own health, the health of your friends, and your family and others,” Reynolds said. “So, good job, we just need to continue being diligent and practicing safe measures and we’re going to continue to see positive results moving forward.”

Reynolds also said the state processed more than 3,000 tests for the virus on three consecutive days this week, meeting a goal established for TestIowa, the state’s expanded testing program which was the result of a $26 million contract with a Utah-based private health care company.

At the bill-signing event, Reynolds signed into law House File 2627, which honors more work and training experience to be put toward professional licensing.

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