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Iowa discovers thousands of previously unreported COVID cases, as Republicans push through bill to nix vaccination incentives


coronavirus.iowa.gov, the state’s former COVID-19 data site, exists no longer. Feb. 17, 2022.

The state changed how it provides information about COVID-19 cases and deaths to the public this week, as the Reynolds administration officially stopped treating the pandemic as a public health emergency at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday. Instead of the weekly COVID-19 update the Iowa Department of Public Health used to post to coronavirus.iowa.gov on Wednesdays, there was a more limited update on a new page on IDPH’s own site.

Coronavirus.iowa.gov was decommissioned as part of Gov. Reynolds’ effort to have state agencies “manage COVID-19 as part of normal daily business” like the “flu and other infectious illnesses [that] are part of our everyday lives.” According to IDPH, as technicians were taking down the site, a previously undetected problem was discovered.

“In the transition to the new reporting format, IDPH discovered 6,700 COVID-19 positive test results dating back to March 2020 that had not been previously reported,” the department said in a news release on Wednesday.

IDPH said those cases have been added to the state’s case total, and the failure to report them did not result did not prevent any individual “from receiving accurate test results.”

This is not the first time the department has misreported COVID-19 data to the public. In August 2020, IDPH confirmed it had been incorrectly reporting case numbers for months due to a Test Iowa software problem. The department’s confirmation came in response to independent reporting by Iowa City nurse practitioner Dana Jones, who had noticed inconsistencies in the data. Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the then-medical director of IDPH, subsequently revealed the department had known about the problem for weeks, before it informed the public its COVID-19 case reporting was unreliable.

In addition to those software problems, there was an IDPH policy decision that led to the department publishing unreliable information about COVID-19 deaths in the state during the first nine months of the pandemic. IDPH did not follow CDC standards for reporting deaths from the virus until December 2020, which caused an undercount of COVID-19 deaths that had to be corrected when the CDC standards were finally adopted.

The first update provided by IDPH’s new reporting system showed a continued decline from the peak of the Omicron-fueled surge in January. According to IDPH, there were 7,863 newly confirmed cases of the virus during the most recent seven-day reporting period. Even though that means infections were still occurring at a rate of more than 1,000 per day, it was a significant decline from the 12,833 new cases in the previous update.

IDPH now publishes much less data in weekly updates, and one of the data sets it has eliminated is the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. According to the department, anyone interested in the number of Iowans hospitalized with the virus should check the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hospital utilization tracker. That site listed 446 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Iowa on Wednesday, a decline from the 617 patients IDPH reported last week.

Gov. Reynolds has said that despite the new limitation on the weekly COVID-19 updates, those updates will be as thorough as IDPH’s weekly flu reports. But one of the few data points the flu reports contain is the number of hospitalized patients.

According to IDPH’s most recent flu report, there were six flu patients in Iowa hospitals for the week ending Feb. 5. The other numbers in that report highlight the distinction between flu and COVID-19. There were 346 newly confirmed cases of flu during that seven-day period, not 7,863. And no deaths from the flu were reported. In its update on Wednesday, IDPH disclosed another 119 COVID-19 deaths, bringing Iowa’s official death toll from the virus to 8,948.

The state has never provided the public with information on the vaccination status of those who died from COVID-19, but according to federal health officials, the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths have occurred among the unvaccinated since vaccines became generally available. A bill approved by the Iowa House State Government Committee on Wednesday night would eliminate important existing incentives to be vaccinated.

HSB 647 would ban businesses and all government entities, including schools and colleges, from being able to ask employees if they are vaccinated against COVID-19. If the bill is signed into law, no hiring, firing, disciplinary or other work-related decisions could be made based on a person’s vaccination status. There is no exemption in the bill for healthcare facilities or other organizations that provide services for medically vulnerable individuals who are at a heightened risk from the virus.

Businesses would also not be able to inquire if customers or other people who enter their premises are vaccinated against COVID-19, or require anyone to wear a mask or face covering. These restrictions would also apply to every “educational institution, employer, or governmental entity” in the state.

HSB 647 is not just sweeping in its provisions, it is also petty. The bill would forbid businesses and government entities from providing “incentives such as coupons, free goods or services,” as well as any other prize, reward or discount to people who have been vaccinated.

The bill was approved by the State Government Committee on a party-line vote, with all of committee Republicans voting in favor of it and all the Democrats opposed. HSB 647 is now eligible to go to the full House, where Republicans hold 60 of the chamber’s 100 seats, to be voted on.


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