Reynolds responds to Trump’s plan to end the National Guard’s pandemic work, while Iowa’s updated COVID-19 site reports questionable data

The National Guard assists Test Iowa operations in Cedar Rapids, May 7, 2020. — National Guard

The changes to the Iowa Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 information site announced on Monday are now complete. New graphs and charts have been added, and according to the department, case numbers are now being updated in real time, instead of once a day.

Introducing the revamped site at her press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said, “The best way to understand the data and what it’s telling us about virus activity is simply to explore the site.”

But finding some relevant information isn’t as simple as the governor implied.

At 11 a.m., when the press conference started, the site showed there had been 341 new cases since its last regularly scheduled update on Monday morning, and 12 more deaths. But not every county had reported its numbers yet. Neither Johnson nor Linn counties showed any change from Monday in the number of new cases, although three of the newly reported deaths were attributed to Linn.

Even though the number of new cases reported daily in both counties has declined, it seemed unlikely that neither would report a resident testing positive.

By 2 p.m., some numbers had changed. Another five deaths had been added to the state’s total, and the overall number of positive cases in the state had increased — instead of an increase of 341 from Monday, it was now an increase of 382 — but the numbers for Johnson and Linn hadn’t changed. And according to the information published on Linn County Public Health’s own COVID-19 information site, the state’s numbers — at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. — were wrong.

(Johnson County Public Health does not have the sort of in-depth information page LCPH does, and as of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, had not updated its information since Monday.)

LCPH lists the number of positive cases in the county as 920, which is 21 more cases than IDPH reported for the county on Monday; IDPH still had the number of case as 899. According to LCPH, the number of deaths IDPH is reporting for Linn County residents is also wrong. IDPH says 73 residents of Linn have died so far from COVID-19, but LCPH says that number is 72.

Discrepancies between county health department data on the number of cases and IDPH’s data has usually been attributed to the 24-hour lag-time that was built into IDPH’s reporting system. In theory, moving to real-time reporting should have eliminated such discrepancies.

(Differences in reporting schedules, however, wouldn’t explain why IDPH is reporting an extra death in Linn County.)

According to IDPH’s site, as of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the total number of Iowans who have tested positive for COVID-19 was 15,337, and 352 people have died from the virus.

Gov. Reynolds has repeatedly said that IDPH’s real-time reporting of case information — from the state-level down to zip codes — and the department’s “robust” contact tracing and case investigation is what she primarily relies on when making decisions about relaxing COVID-19 restrictions. But a change in Trump administration policy may undermine the state’s contact tracing efforts.

“More than 40,000 National Guard members currently helping states test residents for the coronavirus and trace the spread of infections will face a ‘hard stop’ on their deployments on June 24 — just one day shy of many members becoming eligible for key federal benefits, according to a senior FEMA official,” Politico reported on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the National Guard told Politico, “We’re not there yet on the determination. Nobody can say where we’ll need to be more than a month down the road.” The White House didn’t respond to requests for a comment.

Starting in March, President Trump approved the activation on the National Guard to assist with COVID-19 efforts in states across the country, under Title 32 of the U.S. Code. Title 32 places National Guard members under the command of their state’s governor. In Iowa, the National Guard has been used in a variety of capacities. Recently, it has taken on the lead role in contact tracing and case investigation for IDPH.

“Currently we have 150 members of the National Guard that are doing contact tracing and case investigation,” IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said at the governor’s May 11 press conference.

According to Reisetter, other than those members of the National Guard, IDPH’s contact tracing and case investigation consists of staff epidemiologists “doing follow-up phone calls with everybody who’s been identified as a positive case to see how their recovery is going,” and “between 20 and 30” employees of the Iowa Department of Human Services (IDHS) who are doing “case investigation and contact tracing on the positive serological cases.”

Reynolds was asked on Tuesday if she was aware of the Trump administration’s plan to end its Title 32 activation of the National Guard, and if so, what she planned to do in response.

“First of all, I want to thank the Trump administration for actually authorizing Title 32,” Reynolds began her reply. “That has brought tremendous resources to our attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. And so we’re very appreciative of that.”

The governor said Iowa will be asking President Trump “for an additional extension to keep the Title 32 in place through possibly the end of July.”

The case investigations being done by the reassigned IDHS employees are part of the state’s program testing people for possible COVID-19 antibodies. The State Hygienic Laboratory is performing serological tests, which examine blood samples for antibodies. Those antibodies could answer some questions about the impact of COVID-19 on the body and possibly help lead to treatments for the disease. A new section on the IDPH COVID-19 site is devoted to results from serological testing.

During the governor’s press conference on Tuesday, IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati discussed the state’s serological testing. She explained, via Zoom, that doctors treating patients with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 can contact the State Hygienic laboratory to schedule a test. Tests are also being conducted on recovered COVID-19 patients who want to donate plasma to be used to treat current patients. Research on plasma treatment is already underway in Iowa.

On April 15, University of Iowa Health Care announced a team of researchers were conducting a clinical trial to determine if plasma treatments were beneficial to currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

In addition to whatever therapeutic value such antibodies might have, they can also be used to identify people who were infected with the virus but never experienced symptoms.

Pedati said the state is also doing serological testing on “health care workers, first responders and critical infrastructure workers to help us better understand what some of their exposures might have been.”

The doctor cautioned that much is still unknown regarding the COVID-19 antibodies.

“We don’t yet know how well these antibodies work and we don’t know how long that they last,” Pedati said. “But it’s going to be really important for us to understand the kind of immunity that people are developing. And also to help us understand where in our communities this virus might have been and where it might be moving.”

New questions about recovering from COVID-19 were raised last week, after the U.S. Navy confirmed 13 sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that experienced a severe outbreak of COVID-19 in March, have tested positive again. All 13 had the virus during the outbreak and were considered recovered.

The Iowa Medical Classification Center Correctional Facility, 2700 Coral Ridge Ave, Coralville, April 15, 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

IDPH isn’t the only state agency that reports cases of COVID-19. The Iowa Department of Corrections has its own COVID-19 information page. On Tuesday, the department updated its page to indicate that two more inmates at Oakdale Prison in Coralville has tested positive. There have now been 22 confirmed cases of the virus among inmates at Oakdale, and nine cases among the prison’s staff.

Cases of COVID-19 have been reported at five of Iowa’s nine state prisons. Clarinda Correctional Institute is the only other prison to report an inmate testing positive. A staff member at that prison has also been diagnosed with the virus. Members of the staff at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, the Iowa State Penitentiary and the Newton Correctional Facility has tested positive as well.

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