Gov. Kim Reynolds started her press conference on Thursday by boasting about the amount of COVID-19 testing being done in Iowa, and announcing the Test Iowa program will soon begin testing anyone who wants a test. Before the press conference was over, she was complaining that reporters are too “hung up on testing.”
Reynolds also criticized reporters for focusing on how her decisions to relax COVID-19 restrictions in the state might increase the spread of the virus, instead paying attention to “the societal cost” of keeping those restrictions in place.
“This week in Iowa, we hit a new all-time in testing with 4,636 tests reported yesterday,” Reynolds said at the beginning of her press conference.
Although that is still short of the 5,000 tests a day the governor has repeatedly said is possible since she first announced the Test Iowa program on April 21, it is higher than the slightly more than 3,000 tests a day Iowa has been averaging in May.
“More than 3,000 Iowans have been tested at Test Iowa sites since Monday, and more than 700 appointments are already scheduled for today,” Reynolds said.
But a story in the Des Moines Register on Thursday morning revealed problems with how Test Iowa is sharing testing data with officials in the state’s second largest county.
The Register obtained an email sent to a top official in the Iowa Department of Public Health and members of Reynolds’ staff by Tricia Kitzmann, Linn County Public Health’s incident commander for its COVID-19 response.
“We feel that we are at a disadvantage as the data is not being shared at the county level to allow for a complete testing picture,” Kitzmann said in the email.
Kitzmann said the information provided to the county though the Test Iowa program lacked important data, including how many people in the county qualified to be tested and how many negative results the testing produced. She pointed out Test Iowa has been reporting approximately 10 percent of Linn County’s results as “inconclusive,” and there is a lag time in reporting results that delays LCPH’s contact tracing and case investigation work.
LCPH director Pramod Dwivedi voiced these same concerns when briefing the Linn County Board of Supervisors on the testing being done at Test Iowa’s Cedar Rapids site, as Little Village has reported.
“It is creating problems for us because lag time means we are not following up with our cases in Linn County, and we don’t know what’s going on,” Dwivedi told the supervisors this week “It’s really an important issue.”
Last week, Dwivedi discussed the problem of inconclusive tests and the difficulty of getting some basic information from IDPH about the testing program with the supervisors.
Reynolds was asked at her press conference why Test Iowa was having problems providing Linn County with all necessary data in a timely manner.
The governor turned the question over to IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.
“We are aware of the concerns, we’re looking into the concerns and we will resolve them as quickly as we can,” Reisetter said.
The governor was also asked if Test Iowa’s data-sharing problems were occurring in other counties, and if she thought increasing the number of tests done by the program will exacerbate the problems LCPH has identified.
“You know, change is hard,” Reynolds said. “And as we learn new things, and as we modernize the system, as we bring on new capacity, everybody’s learning new things.”
The governor didn’t mention it, but Nomi Health, the Utah tech company hired to create and run Test Iowa, did not have a background in testing programs before it started Test Utah at the beginning of April.
Reynolds said if there is a problem with Test Iowa’s system of data reporting, “we’re going to find out about that and we’re going to correct it.”
“I think, collectively, every day we’re getting better, we’re learning more as a team,” she continued. “And again, I want to remind Iowans, it’s been about two weeks, so the amount of effort and time that has been put into this by a lot of great people.”
Exactly one week ago at a press conference, Reynolds deflected criticism of Test Iowa by saying “It has been three weeks” since the program was launched.
Reynolds continued her answer on Thursday by criticizing reporters for having too narrow of a focus when it comes to Test Iowa.
“We get so hung up on testing,” she said, pointing out that Test Iowa has also improved how IDPH manages testing data.
“We were handwriting the data and hand-entering [it],” before Test Iowa introduced a system in which QR codes are used to automatically fill-in information, the governor said.
Of course, the question that prompted Reynolds’ reply was about reported problems with Test Iowa’s data management, not its actual testing procedures.
By the time Reynolds’ press conference began at 11 a.m., IDPH was already reporting that 20 Iowans had died from COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours. That is the largest number of such deaths reported in a single day. Those deaths bring the state’s total number of COVID-19 fatalities to 405.
The governor was asked if that many deaths has caused her to reevaluate her decision to relax COVID-19 restrictions.
“You know, anytime we lose anybody it’s horrific, it’s horrible, it’s probably one of the hardest things that we report out on,” she said. Reynolds then went on to note that deaths are a lagging indicator of virus activity, and the other data she is reviewing shows positive trends in the state’s efforts to manage COVID-19.
David Pitt of the Associated Press prefaced his question to the governor by pointing out experts have said it is still too soon to see the impact of her earlier orders relaxing COVID-19 restrictions on the spread of the virus in the state. Given this, Pitt asked, what was her rationale for lifting restrictions on movie theaters this week and bars next week, instead of waiting until the impact of the early orders could be assessed?
“Because we are seeing positive results,” Reynolds said. “We are seeing the trends going down, we’re seeing the positivity rate go down.”
After mentioning a few more encouraging data points, the governor pivoted to one of her frequently repeated statements about the virus.
“We have never said we would prevent people from getting COVID-19,” she said. “That’s unrealistic, it’s unattainable. What we have to do is learn to live with it and manage the virus. And we have to get things back to normal.”
Reynolds then criticized the press for failing to appreciate the bigger picture regarding lifting COVID-19 restrictions. (The “you” in the governor’s reply appeared to refer to all reporters, not Pitt, who is only occasionally called on by Reynolds’ press secretary to ask questions.)
“You never want to talk about the other side of that,” Reynolds said, referring to the problems caused by keeping restrictions in place. “You never want to talk about children that are locked in homes with abusive parents, that don’t have eyes on them like they used to when they were at school. You don’t talk about the increase in people that suffer from substance abuse.”
The governor said there’s a “societal cost to just shutting down and not realistically moving forward through this pandemic. We can do it, we are doing it, we’re going to continue to do it, and we’re going to continue to manage it.”
Pitt, of course, did not suggest the state should take any particular action. He asked why Reynolds had ordered more restrictions lifted before the impact of her earlier decisions was clear. The governor did not address that in her reply.
The public health proclamation the governor signed Wednesday allows in-person activities — including baseball and softball — to resume at Iowa schools. Reynolds had Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo provide details about this change.
Lebo said, “starting June 1, school districts and nonpublic schools may begin offering summer learning activities for students, such as summer school, academic enrichment programs and activity-based camps.”
According to the director, “Whether a school chooses to provide in-person learning opportunities over the summer is a local decision that should be made based on the needs of their communities, and in consultation with local public health officials.”
Although baseball and softball programs at high schools may start on June 1, “the use of weight rooms and in-person out-of-season contact for other sports remain on hold until July 1,” Lebo said.
Iowa is the only state that has interscholastic baseball and softball during the summer.
In addition to the 20 deaths IDPH reported on Thursday, the department reported another 452 Iowans tested positive for the virus. (IDPH no longer publishes daily totals for new cases or deaths. That number was determined by comparing the number of cases reported at 2 p.m. on Thursday to the number reported at the same time on Wednesday.)
At the beginning of her press conference on Thursday — well before she admonished reporters for being too focused on the testing part of Test Iowa — Gov. Reynolds said she was “pleased to announce we’re further expanding testing criteria for Test Iowa.”
“Previously, we expanded to allow testing for essential workforce,” Reynolds said. “Later today, we’ll be opening the criteria, so that anyone who thinks that they should be tested can be.”
Test Iowa currently has eight testing sites around the state, located in Polk, Linn, Crawford, Scott, Wapello, Buena Vista, Black Hawk and Woodbury counties. According to IDPH’s COVID-19 information page, the sites in Black Hawk and Woodbury will close at the end of the day on Friday. Next week, new sites will open in Sioux, Marshall and Pottawattamie counties.
The governor said the testing performed by Test Iowa “is especially important as more Iowans are returning to work.”
“So, if you’re interested in being tested, please go to TestIowa.com and take the assessment.”