Iowa Public Radio News | By Katarina Sostaric
The state of Iowa is breaking with the CDC’s recommendation to quarantine all close contacts of people who test positive for coronavirus in an effort to lower the number of students and school staff required to stay home because of potential virus exposure.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who were within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes should quarantine for 14 days, whether or not the people involved were wearing cloth masks.
The Iowa Department of Public Health now says if the infected person and close contacts were wearing masks properly, the close contacts don’t have to quarantine. This won’t apply in health care and residential settings. It does apply to schools, businesses and child care centers.
Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the change at a news conference Tuesday. She said she has been talking to school superintendents about coronavirus safety measures.
“And a common frustration that was expressed to me was around the guidelines for quarantining students and teachers who have been in contact with positive cases,” Reynolds said. “So despite their commitment to implementing layered mitigation strategies to protect the health of their students and teachers and staff, and to keep everyone in the classroom, in some situations, they’re having to quarantine a disproportionately high number of students when just a few positive cases have been identified.”
Reynolds says this can also be a “great incentive” for school leaders to require masks in schools, as she has not required mask wearing in schools or anywhere else.
Last week, the superintendent of Osceola County’s Sibley-Ocheyedan Community School District told Iowa Public Radio he did not require masks at school because it would not prevent students and staff from having to quarantine.
The most recent White House Coronavirus Task Force report for Iowa again recommended a statewide mask requirement. The report also noted Iowa has had a sustained high rate of new COVID-19 infections, and hospitalizations and long-term care facility outbreaks are rapidly increasing.
Lina Tucker Reinders, the executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, said mask wearing and quarantine are both critical for limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
“Masks, contact tracing, and quarantine are all established best practices in the control of infectious disease outbreaks,” Reinders said in a statement. “They work in concert to protect communities. None supersedes nor negates the need for the others.”
Reinders called on Reynolds to provide public health evidence that supports the reduced use of quarantine.
State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati pointed to data from four schools in Sioux County, which had the second-highest 14-day test positivity rate in the state Tuesday at 27.9 percent. She said they compared one school district that required masks to three that did not.
“And the three districts that did not make use of those face coverings actually saw 30 to 130 percent higher rates of new COVID cases,” Dr. Pedati said.
The state declined to name the schools after first indicating to reporters that they would release the school names.
Dr. Pedati said Nebraska and Wyoming have also made changes to school quarantine rules. Those states have high levels of new infections, according to New York Times coronavirus data. Dr. Pedati also mentioned a study from Missouri in which two hair stylists infected with COVID-19 wore face coverings and did not transmit the virus to their clients.
“I don’t want to insinuate that there is zero risk associated with this, right? There’s always some risk associated with most things in life,” Dr. Pedati said. “But we want people to understand what that risk is, and what they can do to protect themselves.”
Reinders said this is not enough evidence to support the change in quarantine rules.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Reynolds’ newest recommendations are not consistent with what the scientific community continues to tell us about protecting ourselves, our students and our communities from COVID-19,” Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said in a statement.
The ISEA is suing the state over its rules for switching to remote learning, which are not in line with recommendations from the CDC or World Health Organization.
What does this mean for contact tracing?
Matt Highland, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, said people who were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 will still be notified of the potential exposure if they were wearing masks.
“Exposed persons will be notified and told to self-monitor [for symptoms], but will not be required to quarantine,” Highland said.
Still, some local health departments sent out news releases that appeared to indicate they would not contact people who were not required to quarantine under the new rules.
Highland said IDPH is updating its guidance for local public health officials to clarify that the change to quarantine rules does not change the definition of “close contacts” for contact tracing purposes.