JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday defended her decision to end mask requirements and other rules designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even as public health officials warned against ending the measures when a new more contagious variant of the virus is spreading in the U.S.

Reynolds announced Friday that she would lift a partial mask requirement, limits on crowd sizes and other mitigation measures. Asked at a news conference why she decided to end those rules, Reynolds repeated her frequent refrain that Iowa residents can make decisions without government mandates.

"I’m not saying, ‘Go out there and be carefree and not be responsible.' I’m saying I trust Iowans to do the right thing,” she said. “I don’t think they need me to say mandate it.”

Since its peak in November, Iowa has seen significant drops in hospitalizations and less robust virus spread. However, it has the highest seven-day rolling average positivity rate in the nation at just under 26%, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. State health departments calculate positivity rates differently across the country, but for Iowa the Associated Press calculates the rate by dividing new cases by people tested, using data from The COVID Tracking Project.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 1,035 new confirmed cases on Wednesday and 29 additional deaths, increasing the state's death toll to 5,174 since the pandemic began.

Several lawmakers who were on a call with IDPH officials on Monday reported the agency admitted that Reynolds had not conferred with them before lifting the mask mandate. Public health officials are warning it's dangerous to relax public measures now, especially with the arrival of a virus variant virus first discovered in the United Kingdom that spreads more easily and may be more deadly.

“We have to face the fact that by opening up right now we're giving this virus every opportunity to take off and take off quickly,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

He said the number of infections from the new variant are doubling about every 10 days, mirroring its spread in Europe where reports last month indicated hospitals in Portugal and Spain were overwhelmed.

Osterholm is anticipating a major surge in the United States before many people over age 65 are vaccinated, causing an increase in deaths in that age group.

He said “the darkest days of the pandemic” are still to come.

Reynolds said officials in President Joe Biden's administration indicated to governors that state allocations of vaccine will increase by 5% next week, meaning Iowa's allocation will rise to 49,900 doses, arriving as early as Friday.

In addition, the federal government will begin shipping doses directly to retail pharmacies, including 70 in Iowa, to help get vaccines distributed more quickly.

Iowa was fifth from the bottom among states in per capita distribution of the first dose of vaccine, at about 8,160 people per 100,000, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Reynolds said Iowa has improved its vaccine distribution and continues to work with some counties that have been slower.