With no public announcement, the Iowa Department of Public Health approved in January a contract extension for a company with ties to the Iowa Republican Party that the department hired in November to provide COVID-19 contact tracing assistance, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported on Friday. The three-month extension will pay MCI $1.58 million.
MCI, an Iowa City-based company that provides call center services, received a $2.3 million contract on Nov. 20 to provide contact tracing to IDPH for two months. The contract was awarded using an unusual emergency bidding process, in which companies only had one day to submit their bids. As news organizations noted at the time, MCI had done work for both the political campaigns of Donald Trump and Kim Reynolds. Its CEO was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in August, and donated $75,000 to various Republican organizations and campaigns in the two years prior to the contract.
Both MCI and IDPH denied the company’s political connections played any part in it receiving the contract.
The contract was set to expire on Jan. 31, but according to documents obtained by the AP through an open records request, IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati signed the extension on Jan. 27. It is scheduled to run through April.
After multiple requests for comment from the AP, an IDPH spokesperson responded, “but she offered no immediate rationale for the contract extension,” according to Foley.
Despite a shortage of contact tracers at the state level and in many counties since the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Reynolds and IDPH chose not to hire outside help until the height of the fall surge of COVID-19 cases in mid-November.
The MCI contract wasn’t the only new effort at contract tracing the Reynolds administration made in November. The state also rolled out a new app to use in COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing. The app was provided by Domo, one of the group of Utah-based tech companies that received a $26 million no-bid contract in April to create Test Iowa.
The app wasn’t introduced until Nov. 5, approximately four months after the state reached its agreement with Domo. The interim director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services approved a contract in July paying the company a $75,000-per-year subscription fee for the app, as well as $175,000 for app installation services. By the end of 2020, the state had paid Domo more than $230,000 for the app.
The public first became aware of the app in late November, when some county public health agencies complained it was poorly designed and actually slowed down efforts at contact tracing.
“People who have used the software say it has potential as a useful tool, but it was developed without consulting with actual contact tracers,” the Gazette reported on Nov. 27.
“There are unnecessary questions — such as ‘have you had exposure to a dog with COVID-19?’ — that take up time in the urgent process of tracking down people who might have been exposed to coronavirus.”
The app also didn’t allow contact tracers to update submitted records.
“It has slowed down our follow-up significantly,” Wapello County Public Health Director Lynelle Diers told the Gazette at the time. “We are finding out about people when their isolation is about over, which, to me, is very ineffective. I know the other system was not built for a pandemic, but why do you do this during a surge?”
Responding to questions from reporters, an IDPH spokesperson said the department and Domo were working on improvements to the app.
By early January, the number of new cases of COVID-19 had declined, and the app was working better, although Sam Jarvis of the Johnson County Public Health (JCPH) told the Gazette there were “still some slower days, where the system seems to lag with data input.”
JCPH didn’t utilize the app during the peak of the surge in November.
In July, the same month the state entered into the service agreement with Domo for the app, Reynolds and two members of her administration appeared in a Domo marketing video praising the company and its software, and portraying Test Iowa as a major success.
Appearing along with Reynolds in the video were Pedati and Paul Trombino. At the time, Trombino, who is now the director of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, served on the governor’s staff as her chief operations officer and was also the interim director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. It was in the latter role that Trombino approved the agreement with Domo for the app.
There is no state law prohibiting Iowa officials from using their positions to promote private companies, but when the existence of the Domo video was first reported by the AP in January, officials from previous administrations described Reynolds’, Pedati’s and Trombino’s involvement in Domo’s marketing campaign as unprecedented.