City Administrator Phil Rath tunes in Thursday’s joint statement from government and health officials for media viewing. The need to keep more than 10 people from gathering in any one location complicated the effort to provide a broad outline of preparations in Wapello County.

OTTUMWA — Health and government officials held a joint press conference Thursday evening in an attempt to calm jangled nerves and address the COVID-19 outbreak.

The core message was much the same as it has been for the past several weeks, as the virus that causes the illness has spread nationally. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Stay home if you’re sick. Avoid crowds.

Mayor Tom Lazio called Thursday “a make-or-break moment” for Iowa in the outbreak. The number of cases is climbing, though none have yet been confirmed for Wapello County. Supervisor Jerry Parker echoed the comment.

“We are changing things hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute,” Parker said.

Some might question the decisions to take drastic actions before the virus is confirmed in Wapello County or even particularly widespread in Iowa. But Parker said the goal is to take action to slow things down before they get to that point.

“When you have to, it’s too late,” he said.

Lynelle Diers, director of Wapello County Public Health, said people should try to have a two-week supply of both prescription and over-the-counter medications at home. Work on plans now for how you would get food if you were quarantined.

She said physicians may also need to prepare if they know someone is coming in and their symptoms match the virus. That means patients need to communicate, too.

“If you have a complaint of a cough, fever, or difficulty breathing, call your health care provider before going to the office,” she said. Patients may be given specific instructions.

Phil Noel, CEO of Ottumwa Regional Health Center, said every person who enters the building is being screened for symptoms, and the hospital has already made changes to limit visitors. He also urged people to call ahead if they are coming in with COVID-19 symptoms.

Absent from the officials’ comments was any information about local testing availability. There have been widespread complaints nationally about the lack of availability for tests. Neither was there any response to the statement Thursday by Pallister Brothers Brewing Company that it hosted a birthday party March 7 that was attended by someone from Washington County who has since tested positive for the virus.

While people were rattled by the company’s statement, it is not certain the person had the virus on March 7. The federal Centers for Disease Control said symptoms of the virus appear 2-14 days after a person contracts the virus.

Both the CDC and the Iowa Department of Public Health have said the majority of cases are mild, something speakers on Thursday also reinforced. Many may not need treatment other than staying home, staying hydrated and staying to yourself.

“If your symptoms are mild, stay at home,” Noel said.

Tim Richmond, Wapello County’s emergency management coordinator, urged people to make sure they get information from trusted sources.

“There are a lot of rumors floating around,” he said. “The Iowa National Guard is not being deployed at this time. The governor is not issuing a shelter in place order at this time.”

Matt Milner can be reached at and followed on Twitter @mwmilner

Matt Milner can be reached at and followed on Twitter @mwmilner


Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

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