BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – A move by Lee County Supervisors to toughen up mask requirements fell just short of a mandate Monday morning.
Supervisors voted unanimously on a recommendation from Supervisor Garry Seyb to strongly recommend vaccinated employees and customers at county offices wear a mask as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to transmit highly in and around Lee County.
Supervisor Ron Fedler asked that the recommendation be revisited next week to possibly change to a mandate depending on what happens with data numbers coming in from the Centers for Disease Control and the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Amy Reasner, the board’s attorney from Lynch-Dallas out of Cedar Rapids, said the board needs to clarify policies for county employees to clear up any gray areas in guidance. She said the county also needs to clarify protocols for fully vaccinated staff who have encountered exposure or are showing symptoms.
Reasner said the Iowa Governor passed a law in 2020 that protected entities from lawsuits filed by persons saying they contracted the disease through exposure at their workplace.
“It’s called Safe Harbor, if you’re following guidance you should be free from civil suits,” Reasner said.
Lee County Health Department Administrator Michele Ross said she was very concerned about the lack of vaccination in Lee County and the growing presence of the Delta variant, and the board should do whatever it could to encourage vaccinations and to keep everyone coming into contact with county staff safe.
“Current trackers establish green, yellow and red spread zones. Lee County is in the red or high transmission zone. That is based on positive cases and community spread. Lee County and nearly all the counties surrounding us are in a red zone,” Ross said.
Currently, unvaccinated county employees are required to wear a mask at work.
Reasner said Cedar Rapids is in Linn county and that county is in the red, but many counties around it are green or yellow.
“That may mean that people just aren’t testing. Data is only as good as the folks collecting it and people participating and testing,” she said.
Ross said IDPH is only reporting data weekly on Wednesdays and she continues to reflect that information in local reporting. However, she said the CDC is showing Lee County with a 300% increase in the positivity rating over the past several weeks, with 179 current positive cases in the county. IDPH is reporting 109 new cases as of last Wednesday.
“There’s no consistency in the data sets, but we continue to monitor IDPH public health data because they base it on test results reported to the state Hygienic Lab. It’s still required by Iowa law that health providers and now pharmacies offering test kits report test results to the state,” Ross said.
Ross said the most important thing is to get the vaccine rate up in the county. Lee County is still under 40% with the state average at 47.3%.
“This is very high transmission and it’s very, very contagious compared to the strain we were looking at last year. And new strains could develop, so the important thing is to get vaccine rates up,” Ross said.
“This decreases the likelihood of more strains and mutations, and we don’t want that to get to the point where the strains become resistant to vaccines.”
Ross said those vaccinated who become exposed, in the majority of cases are experiencing more like common cold symptoms rather than the severe reactions and hospitalizations of those that haven’t been vaccinated.
She said there are instances of those fully vaccinated testing positive, but they are not seeing the hospitalizations and deaths that were associated with the virus last year, or with those who’ve chosen to not be vaccinated.
“Updated guidance is for even those fully vaccinated to wear masks in indoor settings, especially those immunocompromised. This is very easy to get this virus in your nose or mouth and if you don’t have a mask on and another person within six feet breathes that in, that’s how it spreads,” Ross said.
“That’s how we’re getting such high community spread, but a lot of people don’t realize they are symptomatic.”
Ross stopped just short of recommending a mask mandate for county buildings. Seyb said he thought a mandate would discourage people from getting vaccinated.
“If people are required to wear a mask, I don’t think they’ll see the incentive to get vaccinated.”
Ross said it was important for the county to take a strong stand to lead the way in controlling the spread.
“We should set an example that this is serious and we’re going in the wrong direction. There is lots of new virus activity, surges, and hospitals are getting at capacity. I’m asking the board to consider what is best for the county’s health coming into our buildings,” Ross said.
Michelle Reed, a human resources specialist with Lee County, said in the past week county staff has had three people out symptomatic, with one testing positive. Reed has been doing contact tracing all week, and those who are out symptomatic are fully vaccinated.