Iowa’s COVID-19 death toll surpasses 1,000 as problems with data reporting continue

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

COVID-19 has now killed more than 1,000 Iowans, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, IDPH reported another 16 deaths from the virus, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 1,003.

The grim milestone comes just days after an IDPH official confirmed the data management system the state uses does not accurately report COVID-19 testing data.

In an Aug. 14 email to Dana Jones, Rob Ramaekers, the lead epidemiologist in the IDPH Surveillance Unit, explained an error in the system has caused it to backdate thousands of COVID-19 tests.

Jones, an Iowa City nurse practitioner, has been independently tracking the state’s COVID-19 statistics and realized IDPH’s data showed a large number of positive tests being added to the totals of previous months. Last week, she emailed the department to ask “why new positive COVID cases were added to dates as far back as March over the last week.”

In his reply to Jones, Ramaekers said once a person is tested, IDPH’s reporting system assigns all subsequent test results to the date of the first test.

“So if I tested negative in March and was reported to IDPH, I would have a ‘Reported to IDPH’ date of March,” Ramaekers explained. “If I was tested again today and came back positive, my ‘Reported to IDPH’ date does not change and now suddenly I appear on the graph in March [instead of having the positive result assigned to the date of the actual positive test].”

Several journalists and news organizations, including Little Village, had found discrepancies in IDPH’s COVID-19 data, but until Ramaekers’ email to Jones, no state official admitted there was a problem with IDPH’s data management system.

The data management system and the IDPH COVID-19 website were both set up and are both managed by the Utah-based tech companies responsible for Test Iowa. Those companies had less than a month of experience in running a major testing program before Gov. Kim Reynolds awarded them a $26 million no-bid contract to operate the Test Iowa program in April.

News of Jones’ research and her email exchange with Ramaekers broke on Monday, but neither IDPH nor the governor’s office responded to reporters’ questions about the data management problem until Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Reynolds’ spokesperson told the Associated Press work was underway to fix the problem, but did not offer any details about what went wrong or how many tests were misreported.

The backdating problem was not supposed to have affected the overall number positive test results reported, but on Wednesday, a discrepancy did appear.

At 10 a.m., the IDPH COVID-19 information site said a total of 53,491 Iowans had tested positive for the virus since it was first confirmed in the state on March 8. At 4 p.m. the site was reporting the total number of positive test results as 53,288, a decrease of 203 positive cases.

Little Village emailed IDPH to ask why the total number of positive results had been reduced on Wednesday, but did not receive an immediate reply.

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