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Iowa students, teachers and business employees will no longer be asked to quarantine after coming in contact with people later diagnosed with coronavirus, but only if everybody wore masks.
State health officials in Iowa will no longer recommend a two-week quarantine for certain residents who come into contact with a person infected with the coronavirus, as long as everyone involved was wearing a mask, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced this week.
The policy, which applies to students, teachers and business employees but excludes health-care workers, runs counter to federal health guidelines, which recommend a 14-day quarantine for anyone who has been “in close contact with someone who has Covid-19.” The only exception is people who have had Covid-19 within the past three months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reynolds said Tuesday that the relaxed restriction was in part a response to frustration among school superintendents over the state’s previous guidance after somebody in a school gets sick.
“In some situations, they’re having to quarantine a disproportionately high number of students when just a few positive cases have been identified,” she said.
The new policy, she said, would serve as an incentive for school districts to enforce mask-wearing. The state doesn’t mandate masks in schools, and Reynolds—who has repeatedly resisted calls to issue a statewide mask requirement—did not impose one as part of the policy update.
"This is an incentive to get them to do it," Reynolds said. "This is what the superintendents are asking for. I think it's a great effort that we can put in place to provide them the flexibility to move in that direction."
Under the new guidance, only the person infected with Covid-19 needs to quarantine, provided that everyone involved in the encounter wore masks “correctly and consistently” for the duration of the interaction. But otherwise healthy people who come into contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus should self-monitor their symptoms in the weeks after the encounter, said Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state’s epidemiologist.
The new policy came after state officials examined similar policy changes in nearby states, including Wyoming and Nebraska, along with an analysis of virus data in four school districts—three that require masks and one that does not. Districts without mask policies in place saw between 30-130% more cases than the district that requires face coverings, Pedati said.
“I don’t want to insinuate that there is zero risk associated with this,” Pedati said. “But we want people to understand what that risk is and what they can do to protect themselves.”
The Iowa Public Health Association swiftly condemned the change, saying in a statement that “face shields alone are not sufficient to meet the governor’s new quarantine guidance.”
“Masks, contact tracing, and quarantine are all established best practices in the control of infectious disease outbreaks,” the statement continues. “They work in concert to protect communities. None supersedes nor negates the need for others.”
Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, echoed that skepticism, saying the recommendations “are not consistent with what the scientific community continues to tell us about protecting ourselves, our students and our communities from Covid-19.”
"Weeks into the school year, we are once again grappling with cloudy information that has no basis in science,” he said in a statement.
Reynolds’ announcement follows a recent surge of coronavirus cases in Iowa. As of Thursday, the state reported 89,524 confirmed cases of the virus, with 1,358 deaths.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.