Politics and policy in a pandemic


On Saturday, March 14 — just over a month ago — I texted a friend and mentor of mine who had served on the 2014 Ebola Response Task Force, asking him how con-cerned our country should be about the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spreading throughout the United States on a scale of 1 to 10.

His answer: “9”

At the time, it did not feel like our coun-try was at a 9. Nowhere close. But just two and a half days later, I was at the Iowa Statehouse until just before midnight as the legislature passed emergency “continuity of government” legislation (a phrase we say now) and suspended our legislative session for 30 days. Somehow, that was only two weeks ago.

Where We Are

Over the last two weeks, the response from the federal and state governments has ramped up, and today we are treating this epidemic much closer to a 9 out of 10. Un-fortunately, we lost precious time. And as a result, this past week, the U.S. became the country with the most cases of COVID-19, (the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus) having now reached approxi-mately four times as many reported cases per capita as China. We have fewer cases per capita than Italy, but that could well change in the next week or two. And — because of the social distancing measures that have been needed to slow the speed of the COVID-19 spread — last Friday, U.S. jobless claims went through the roof:

It is not yet clear what the medium- to long-term effects of this enormous eco-nomic disruption will be — although we know they certainly won’t be good. Hope-fully the federal stimulus bill will be ade-quate to stave off a depression or recession, but it’s too soon to say.

When I decided to run for office, I never would have imagined that during my first term as a state Senator that I would be deal-ing with a global pandemic. And I certainly never would have guessed that my district would be at the heart of an outbreak of that disease in my own state.

After the session was suspended, I packed up my apartment in Des Moines, drove home, and started to adjust to the new normal. And this normal is “new” for nearly all of us.

My fiancée and I have been basically hunkered down since then, only leaving the house for once a week grocery trips or for walks outside. I’m staying home, and if you can stay home, please stay home, too. #FlattenTheCurve

What I’m Doing: learning,

connecting, and casework

First and foremost, I’m learning a lot and trying to stay up-to-date on what is happening. I’m reading lots of local news, participating in lots of conference calls, and staying in touch with local leaders. I am in a state of near-constant communication with our Senate Democratic caucus staff and am trying to engage people construc-tively on social media. The amount of in-formation flying around is head spinning. I am not an expert on this topic, and the sheer volume of information is enormous. Thankfully, navigating huge flows of in-formation like this is actually similar to what legislators do during the legislative session, navigating what I call the “River of Information.”

I am also trying to stay in touch with what is happening in other states and coun-tries. About 10 days ago, I binge-listened to several episodes of The Daily, including a conversation with an Italian physician that brought me to the verge of tears. Two rules I am trying hard to observe: (1) listen to subject matter experts and (2) do not share or repeat information that I do not know is accurate. What I am currently finding to be most difficult are the situations in which there are conflicting opinions within the medical community about the right path forward. For example, in my community, there is a lot of heated discussion as to whether we should pursue a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order. Some medical experts seem to support it. Some do not. Conflicting information leads easily to pub-lic confusion.

Second, I’m spending a lot of time con-necting people to each other or to re-sources. Most of this is local — connecting small business owners to resources, helping constituents file for unemployment, an-swering questions about whether or not insurance will cover tele-health, and getting Iowans who were stuck in Peru connected to the State Department. I have to give a special shout-out to the Senate Democratic caucus staff, who are doing incredible work and handling huge volumes of email under lots of pressure.

Another example of what these connec-tions look like — last week, I got a text from a childhood friend (his dad works at the same hospital as my moms) asking if Iowa needed more ventilators and masks. Yes. Yes we do. It turns out that Drew, who is now living in California, had some business connections to medical supply chains that were not being tapped — so I wound up spending a significant amount of time that week connecting Drew and his team to various entities (mostly states) that, like Iowa, needed more medical supplies ASAP. As of a few days ago, the federal government has gotten more involved, so things for us have cooled off a bit on that specific front.

Finally, based on the anecdotes and challenges my constituents are sharing with me, I am continuing to fight for my con-stituents. Because the legislature is sus-pended, we can’t pass any laws right now — but legislators can send emails, call people, and follow up with other policy-makers within our government to make sure the state of Iowa and the federal gov-ernment are taking the necessary action. For example, federal regulations were hampering our local school district, which created a meal pick-up service for families who need lunch. Those regulations required that parents have their kids be present when they picked up the meals. That may seem like a “common sense” measure — except in a pandemic when children can be asymp-tomatic carriers of the disease. The moment I heard from a local constituent who is a junior high assistant principal about how this piece of red tape was both depressing meal pickup and creating public health consequences for the people who did show up, I was on the phone and firing off emails to get this fixed. Working in support of our fantastic Representative Dave Loebsack and his staff, the rule was fixed.

For another education-related example, again working closely with the Iowa City Community School District, I have been pushing to make sure that our district has the support it needed from the Iowa De-partment of Education. I’m working to en-sure that we deliver as much education to as many kids as we can without losing sight of equity for kids from low- and moderate-income families, students who are still learning English, and anyone who receives special education services. We have great partners and resources here at the local level, and as a Senator, I’m fighting to en-sure we are able to deliver and meet that need.

A Few Observations

Social Media — There are huge, huge amounts of misinformation — and poten-tially intentional disinformation — cours-ing through social media, which is a pri-mary source of news for many Americans. We have seen how much of an effect this can have on politics, and it is definitely having that effect on our response to the pandemic. And unfortunately, the pan-demic, especially initially and still some-what today, has been politicized. Which leads to my next point…

Polarization — I don’t have lots of free time, but I do have some, and last week I finished Ezra Klein’s new book “Why We’re Polarized,” which provided a helpful frame for understanding why it is that something like a “shelter-in-place” order could become a polarizing topic. The book is not exactly a fun read, but it’s worth your time.

Communication — Communication is hard. Especially during times of crisis, it’s important that communication be clear and consistent. As an elected official, I’m hy-per-aware that virtually anything I say — any tweet, any Facebook post, any text message, any phone call, any email — is and can be seen as a source of reputable information.

Vocabulary — One thing that really strikes me is the vocabulary. We are all using and hearing words that have taken on new meaning during this time. “Guidance,” is the word I hear most often. This refers to rules and/or suggestions from higher up the authority ladder. “Social distancing,” “flat-tening the curve,” “lock down,” “situation report, aka ‘sit rep,’” “social isolation,” “quarantine,” “N95,” “PPE,” “ventilators,” “respirators,” — these are not words that you hear with this frequency during a nor-mal time.

Time — In between when I started this post on Friday (March 27) and today (March 30) something clicked about the actual amount of time this is going to be. We’re now two weeks removed from when the Iowa Legislature suspended, and it now seems nearly unfathomable that we would reconvene two weeks from now, as origi-nally scheduled. If we actually stay en-gaged in these social distancing protocols for another month or two, the time is going to stretch longer and longer. There’s a say-ing in politics: “Long days, short weeks.” Just about everyone will be able to relate to that before this is all over.

The Helpers — Every day, legislators receive a “Situation Report” updating us on the latest developments throughout the state. About a week ago, the SitRep in-cluded a new section on how Iowans inter-ested in volunteering can pitch in, and that section is continuing to grow. And nearly everywhere I turn, there are people wanting to help — in addition to all the medical personnel, first responders and essential business workers. From sea to shining sea, there are Americans rushing to help. Just earlier today, I saw a photo of a former next door neighbor of mine, who I last saw when he was just a boy, deployed to New York City as a sailor on the USNS Com-fort, sailing into New York harbor. “Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers said. There are so, so many.

Self-Care—Amid this crisis, I’m also trying to take care of myself. I’m “Zoom-ing” into church on Sundays and am mak-ing time for scripture and other religious works throughout the week. I’m trying to exercise every day. At the urging of my mother Terry, I am doing my best to medi-tate regularly. I’m really enjoying a weekly virtual poker night with college buddies that we never would’ve organized before this. Chloe and I are trying to take walks on sunny days. I’m trying to not feel guilty about spending an hour catching up on the Packers’ off-season moves or doing a crossword puzzle. We’re human, and we need to continue to live as best and as most responsibly as we can.

In Closing

This is an incredibly difficult time. And while it will get worse before it gets better, there is a deep understanding across this state, and across this country, that we are in this challenge together. We are counting on each other, and we are working side-by-socially-distanced-side to make it through this. We have learned that “social distanc-ing” is not just something we do for our-selves — it is something we do for each other and for people we don’t know. We are counting on each other, across the country and around the world, to take this responsibility seriously, so that we may protect the people we love.

Together, we are flattening the curve and saving the lives of hundreds of thou-sands — if not millions — of our fellow Americans. Although our nation may have been late to the effort, and although our response has been imperfect, we are joined in this struggle as one people. I am wishing you and yours strength, safety, and health in the weeks, months, and years ahead.