IDPH knew for weeks it was misreporting COVID-19 data; Reynolds says it was a minor problem

Gov. Kim Reynolds arrives to her Aug. 20 press conference. — video still

The Iowa Department of Public Health knew for weeks it was publishing inaccurate information about the spread of COVID-19 in the state, IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati said in an interview with the Gazette on Wednesday.

Pedati told reporter Michaela Ramm she was aware by the end of July that IDPH’s data management system was backdating COVID-19 test results. The public, however, did not become aware of the problem until earlier this week.

The only reason the public became aware of the problem is an IDPH official acknowledged the data management system was assigning all test results for a person, regardless of how many tests the person has had, to the date of the person’s first test. The acknowledgement came in response to an email from Dana Jones, an Iowa City nurse practitioner, who had contacted the department after discovering the number of test results attributed to previous months in IDPH’s published data kept increasing.

Pedati’s confirmation that she knew the information being provided to the public was inaccurate didn’t stop Gov. Kim Reynolds from boasting during her Thursday news conference about what a good job her administration has done keeping the public informed about COVID-19.

“Throughout the pandemic we’ve been committed to providing accurate and timely data related to virus activity across the state,” Reynolds said, reading from prepared remarks. “And it’s been a work-in-progress over time. We’ve improved the quality and the quantity of data that’s available to Iowans.”

The governor said, in response to a reporter’s question, that she wasn’t aware of IDPH’s backdating problem until this week.

The reporter asked why the governor decided to impose standards on schools regarding in-person instruction that are based on 14-day test positivity averages at a time when IDPH knew its backdating problem affected those averages.

Reynolds announced those standards on July 30. Even if the governor was not aware of IDPH’s misreporting of data by then, Pedati was. The doctor participated in the governor’s July 30 news conference, as well as subsequent news conferences, and even discussed the standards regarding positivity averages, but never disclosed IDPH was misreporting case information.

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

Reynolds said on Thursday “yesterday we implemented a fix to resolve” the backdating problem. The governor claimed the problem was caused by outdated computers the state was using. She also repeatedly praised the work of DOMO, a Utah-based company that is supposed to managed the state’s COVID-19 database as part of the Test Iowa initiative.

DOMO, like the other companies involved in Test Iowa, only had a few weeks of experience in running a statewide testing program before Reynolds awarded the companies a $26 million no-bid contract to create and manage Test Iowa.

Dana Jones’ review of IDPH data indicated the backdating problem had been occurring since at least the end of May.

According to Reynolds, since the backdating problem had affected both positive and negative results its impact on the overall accuracy of IDPH’s data was minimal.

During the news conference, the governor sought to downplay the significance of IDPH knowingly misreporting test data for weeks.

“I don’t think there’s any of you, any of the agencies you work for that hasn’t done an IT update that hasn’t experienced some glitches throughout that process,” Reynolds said to the reporters. “It’s part of it.”

Throughout the pandemic, the governor has said she doesn’t need to take steps almost every other state has — such as issuing a shelter-in-place order or requiring face coverings in public — because the data published by IDPH was so accurate and informative that all Iowans could use it to make their own decisions on how best to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

As she typically does, Reynolds sounded upbeat about how the state is handling the pandemic, although she did concede during her prepared remarks that “Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen a gradual increase in hospitalization rates and long-term care facility outbreaks for a variety of reasons.”

The governor, however, did not mention the announcement by the Iowa Department of Corrections that it has stopped accepting the transfer of inmates from county jails to state prisons because of an outbreak of COVID-19.

The Iowa Medical Classification Center Correctional Facility in Coralville, where the first cases of COVID-19 in an Iowa prison were confirmed on April 11. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

All inmates being transferred from jails to prisons are first screened at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, also known as Oakdale Prison.

“In the last week, [Oakdale] has conducted nearly 800 new COVID-19 tests, with 59 of those tests having positive results,” IDOC said in a statement on Wednesday.

Oakdale “is currently on restrictive movement as security, treatment and medical staff work to mitigate further spread of the virus,” the department said. “Inmates will only be out of their respective cells for a limited amount of time each day, and one cell per living unit at a time to prevent viral spread.”

According to IDOC, the suspension on transfers will end “as soon as the department believes the virus is no longer spreading at the facility.”

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