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State and federal officials say there are simple, everyday steps you can take to avoid catching or spreading respiratory diseases, including COVID-19: Cover your coughs and sneezes, thoroughly wash or sanitize your hands and stay home if you are sick. Get more information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at CDC.gov/coronavirus, or call 211, the Iowa Department of Public Health's hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Iowa public health officials say a person who had tested positive for coronavirus in the state has died.

Gov. Kim Reynolds' office announced the death in a news release sent Tuesday night.  The death is the first in Iowa linked to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

"Our hearts are heavy with the first loss of an Iowan to COVID-19. The thoughts and prayers of our state are with the family during this difficult time," Reynolds said. "I continue to urge all Iowans to protect their health and the health of others, especially older individuals and those with chronic health conditions who are most at risk. We all have a role to play in limiting the spread of this virus."

The person lived in Dubuque County and was between 61 and 80 years old. No additional information was released.

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Dubuque County Public Health officials urged everyone to take the virus seriously and to take precautions against it. The death does not mean Dubuque County is more at risk for COVID-19 than other areas, the department's executive director, Patrice Lambert, said in a statement. 

“First and foremost, we express our sincere sympathy to this individual’s family,” Lambert said in the statement. “This death is a tragedy and a reminder for all of the seriousness of this virus.”

Lambert encouraged Iowans to practice social distancing by avoiding groups of people and keeping a six-foot distance from others; to cover coughs and sneezes with tissues, elbow or upper arm area; to wash hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds; and, if ill, to stay home and call your health care provider before visiting a health care facility.

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The death is linked to one of the known cases of coronavirus in the state. The Iowa Department of Public Health has reported 124 cases in the state as of Tuesday. Six of those were residents of Dubuque County.

People in all 50 states and more than 160 counties have tested positive for the virus. In the U.S. alone, it has so far contributed to more than 600 deaths. 

Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Iowa, mourned the death, but noted it fit with the disease’s mortality rate.

"It's a tragedy it happened,” Perlman said. “But the nature of this disease is just a 1 to 3% mortality rate. We hope we will get it lower. But people have to follow the basic rules."

He contrasted it to the seasonal flu’s one-in-a-thousand-cases mortality rate and called the notion that the coronavirus is similar or not a big deal “really foolish, because it is a big deal.”

Iowa’s first death related to COVID-19 does not mean the state should enter a California-style shelter-in-place though, Perlman said. Instead, he believes, Iowans should focus on the basics: Wash your hands regularly and for 20 seconds, and avoid crowds and keep your distance from individuals.

"That cost (of shelter in place) has such major economic and social implications,” Perlman said. “You only do that if you really have to. Italy did it way too late. It's a disaster in Italy with the number of cases and the number of deaths and the health care facilities being overwhelmed. We don't want to see that here and that's why we have to do all the right things."

Barbara Rodriguez covers health care and politics for the Register. She can be reached by email at bcrodriguez@registermedia.com or by phone at 515-284-8011. Follow her on Twitter @bcrodriguez.

Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at ncoltrain@registermedia.com or at 515-284-8361.

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