September 20, 2021

COVID-19 rates a worry as 1 million head for Iowa State Fair

DES MOINES (AP) — With coronavirus cases rising throughout Iowa and around the nation, health experts are becoming increasingly worried about next month’s Iowa State Fair, which will bring more than 1 million people to Des Moines from around the state, including many from counties with low vaccination rates and increasing prevalence of the disease.

Iowa’s biggest annual event comes at a time when giant summer events will draw crowds throughout the nation, including in states that are experiencing more virus infections due to low vaccination rates and growth of the delta variant. They range from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota to the Minnesota State Fair, which typically draws more than 2 million people.

In Iowa, officials have encouraged people to get vaccinated, but the state’s Republican-majority legislature and governor have blocked local governments from imposing vaccination or mask requirements, so there will be no limits on who can attend the fair when the event begins its 11-day run on Aug. 12.

“Unfortunately our current leadership has turned their back on science and turned their back on what’s available to us to fight this pandemic and leaving Iowans struggling against what could be prevented,” said Dr. Megan Srinivas, an Iowa-based infectious disease physician nationally recognized for her research, which includes COVID-19.

She said people have the misconception that being outdoors ensures safety, when the virus actually can spread in large dense crowds such as state fairs and large concert venues.

“Anytime we see a large congregation of people especially with the mixed vaccination status, we’re going to see high risk for transmission and increases in transmission,” she said.

In addition, the delta variant is two to three times more transmissible than prior virus strains, creating an additional risk among fairgoers as they stand in line for food, share condiment dispensers and hop into carnival rides, Srinivas said.

The Iowa State Fair will be in Polk County, where health department spokeswoman Nola Aigner Davis expressed concern about the state’s virus trends and a reluctance to get vaccinated or wear masks.

“We know what the numbers say. We know that our cases are going up. We know trends are going up. What is the safe thing to do when people can’t get vaccinated? They need to wear a mask,” Davis said.

Asked Wednesday if she was concerned about infections at the Iowa State Fair, Gov. Kim Reynolds didn’t directly answer but advised potential fairgoers to get vaccinated and noted most people hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.

“So it’s a decision that they’ve made,” she said. “They’ve made the calculation on whether to do it or not and so I don’t feel that we should punish everybody because some have made the decision not to.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that 49% of Iowans were fully vaccinated, ranking the state 21st in the nation. In at least 18 of Iowa’s 99 counties, fewer than 40% of the population is vaccinated, and CDC data shows 35 counties with a high rate of spread and 12 counties with substantial spread of the virus.

Iowa also has the sixth-lowest testing rates in the nation among states reporting the data, which could make it difficult to pinpoint an outbreak if one occurs.