Dr. Caitlin Pedati, who oversaw Iowa’s COVID-19 response, gets a new job

Dr. Pedati delivers remarks during Gov. Kim Reynolds’ March 25, 2020 press conference. — video still

Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the former medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health and state epidemiologist, who oversaw the Reynolds administration’s minimal approach to COVID-19 mitigation, has found a new job. Pedati, who announced in September she would be stepping down from her Iowa positions in “late October” has been hired by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) as the health district director for the City of Virginia Beach.

“We are truly fortunate to have Dr. Pedati join our team at VDH. With her background in infectious disease control and epidemiology at the state and national level, Dr. Pedati is joining our health department at an opportune time as we continue our COVID-19 pandemic response and efforts,” VDH’s Dr. Parham Jaberi said in a written statement on Friday.

The characterization of Pedati’s hire as “truly fortunate” is hard to reconcile with her record in Iowa.

Pedati, who grew up in Virginia, worked for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services before being hired by the Reynolds administration in June 2018. The doctor did not have much of a public profile until almost two years later, when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state and she became a regular presence at Gov. Reynolds’ news conferences.

Pedati steadfastly supported Reynolds as the governor rejected advice from public health experts at all levels, international (WHO), national (CDC and the White House Coronavirus Task Force), as well as state and local (the Iowa Public Health Association, among others).

As IDPH medical director, Pedati was willing to endorse the state’s lack of many basic pandemic precautions, such as face mask mandates, and to push policies that prioritized keeping businesses open even as the rate of COVID-19 spread increased and spiked among some workers, such as meat-processing plant employees.

State Medical Director and Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati Zooms into the Aug. 20 press conference. — video still

Under Pedati’s guidance, IDPH refused to disclose any workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, unless reporters directly asked about a particular worksite. Pedati also defended the department’s unusually strict definition of what constitutes a COVID-19 outbreak at a long-term care facility, which reduced the information on virus spread in nursing homes disclosed by the state.

The quality of information IDPH has provided the public during the pandemic has often been called into question, and in August 2020, the department was forced to admit it has been misreporting COVID-19 case numbers for months, after Dana Jones, an Iowa City nurse practitioner who had been independently monitoring the data, discovered the department was altering its numbers.

In an interview with the Gazette, Pedati confirmed she and others in the department knew for weeks the data was wrong, but continued to present it to the public as accurate.

Pedati’s approach to public health attracted the admiration of President Donald Trump, albeit in a fleeting manner. When the doctor accompanied Reynolds to a meeting at the White House in May 2020, Trump said during a photo-op, “I’m stealing her.”

After some good-natured back-and-forth with Reynolds, he said, “I’m not going to steal her.”

“But I think you should be on the [White House Coronavirus Task Force],” Trump said to Pedati. “Would you like to do that?”

An unnamed White House official told Bloomberg News later that day Trump’s statement was not actually an invitation to join the task force, but Reynolds insisted it was real and happening. The unnamed White House official was correct, and Pedati was not added to the task force.

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Dr. Caitlin Pedati, President Donald Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds pose in the Oval Office on May 6, 2020. Trump has praised Iowa’s response to COVID-19, but healthcare works, local elected officials and thousands of citizens have called for stronger mitigation efforts, including stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and regulation of meat processing plants. — official White House photo

Although Pedati did not get the national recognition that comes with joining the White House Coronavirus Task Force, she has been well compensated for her work in Iowa. In August 2020, Laura Bellin of Bleeding Heartland broke the news that Pedati has received a 45 percent pay raise the previous month, which would add “an extra $81,744 in base salary over twelve months.” The pay increase brought Pedati’s annual salary to $265,044.

Bellin also revealed that in 2020 Pedati “received $55,515.58 in overtime compensation from early March through the pay period ending July 9,” more than any other state employee.

“How the overtime was calculated is unclear,” Bellin wrote, after reviewing state documents..

According to Axios Des Moines, which first reported the news of Pedati’s hiring, her new job is “a recently created position that pays $190,000 a year.”

In his statement on Friday, Jaberi said Pedati “is joining our health department at an opportune time as we continue our COVID-19 pandemic response and efforts.”

By the time of its last weekly update in October, when Pedati stepped down, IDPH had reported 6,965 deaths in the state from COVID-19. According to an analysis published in the Des Moines Register on Oct. 24 by Dr. James Merchant, the former director of the Division of Respiratory Disease Studies for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and CDC, as well as the founding dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, more than 3,000 of those deaths would likely have been prevented if Iowa had implemented the same COVID-19 mitigation efforts as Minnesota.

IDPH does not currently have a medical director and the position of state epidemiologist is also unfilled. Reynolds was asked during a Nov. 3 news conference about what progress had been made in filling those positions.

“I know that the job has been posted, I don’t know how many have applied,” she said. “I would defer that question to Director Garcia. So, we, like everybody else, it’s a tight labor market, but I know the job has been posted. [sic] I think they’ve received some applicants, but Kelly would be the one that you would need to give you an update on that.”

Kelly Garcia is the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, and has also been serving as the interim director of IDPH for the last 17 months.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, IDPH has not had a full-time director since the end of July 2020.