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New state website on COVID-19 reveals black and Latino Iowans are testing positive at disproportionate rates

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State map from the new dashboard for the state’s COVID-19 website, April 14, 2020.

The state relaunched its COVID-19 information website — coronavirus.iowa.gov — on Tuesday morning, with new features and an expanded range of data. The site quickly crashed, and was replaced by its old version.

“We have had a large volume that’s been using the new website, and we didn’t have the processing power that we needed,” Gov. Reynolds said at her press conference late Tuesday morning. “So, they are working on that, and it should ready to go later this afternoon.”

The site update was finally completed at 7:30 p.m.

The new site dashboard features a map displaying current information regarding the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 by county, as well as reported deaths from the virus. The number of total tests conducted in the county, as well as the number of patients considered recovered.

The new dashboard also features a table with the age ranges of all the positive cases and deaths by county. In Johnson County, for example, residents between the ages of 18 and 40 account for its largest number of positive cases (91 of 215 cases), while in Linn County, the largest segment of the population testing positive is people between 41 and 60 (87 of 265 cases).

The dashboard feature that provides the most interesting new data is the demographics tab. At the governor’s press conference on April 7, Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter declined to provide information about the racial and ethnic breakdown of COVID-19 cases in Iowa.

“At this point in time, we don’t have plans to release case counts by race and ethnicity. At the end of every outbreak, we do do an outbreak investigation report,” she said. “Once we get to that particular point in time, we might be ready to release some of that information.”

The new demographics feature provides the answer.

COVID-19 cases by race, April 14, 2020.

Although black Iowans only make up about 4 percent of the population, they account for 8.7 percent of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Iowa. The disparity is even larger for Hispanics and Latinos. They account for approximately 6 percent of the state’s population, but 16.7 percent of Iowa’s COVID-19 cases.

COVID-19 by ethnicity, April 14, 2020

The site’s demographics feature does not provide any racial or ethnic information regarding deaths from the virus.

The dashboard also shows the public for the first time the epidemiological curve — or epi curve — that IDPH has been relying on in its assessment of the spread of the virus in the state. The epi curve tracks the date people who have tested positive reported first experiencing symptoms.

“Using something like an epi curve is really helpful because it helps orient data over time,” IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlan Pedati said at the governor’s press conference on Tuesday.

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Many epidemiologists rely on this sort of data to document the spread of a virus in a community.

Pedati said it also “helps us understand the magnitude of the number of people infected.”

Epi curve on the new dashboard for the state’s COVID-19 website, April 14, 2020

But experts caution that data from epi curves are of limited usefulness if there is not widespread testing. And the data used to create the curve doesn’t include the people public health officials have advised to stay home and self-isolate if they are experiencing minor symptoms, who may account for up to 80 percent of those infected with virus.

Statistics on COVID-19 testing reported to IDPH is also available on the new dashboard, as is information regarding each of the six regions IDPH divides the state into for planning purposes. IDPH scores each region on 12 points scales — measuring the percentage of the population over 65, the percentage of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, the rate of infection per 100,000 residents during the past 14 days and the number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities — and if a region reaches 10 or higher, IDPH is supposed to recommend the governor issue a shelter-in-place order.

The dashboard provides the current score for each region, but not the data that score is based on.

The dashboard also tracks outbreaks of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, giving the number of residents and staff that have tested positive at a facilities with an outbreak. On Tuesday, IDPH reported three new outbreaks, bringing the state’s total to six.

The new outbreaks are in Bremer County (Bartels Lutheran Retirement) and Polk County (where both On With Life and Trinity Center of Lutheran Park have infected residents).

But that outbreak data highlights how the statistics IDPH provides may not reflect the full scope of the pandemic in Iowa. IDPH does not disclose all cases of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, only at those that meet its definition of an outbreak — three or more residents testing positive for the virus.

That definition excludes such facilities as Linn Manor Care in Marion, where two residents have died from COVID-19 and three staff members have tested positive. At a press conference Monday, Linn County Public Health Clinical Service Supervisor said that despite IDPH’s narrow definition, LCPH considered the situation at Linn Manor Care to be an outbreak.

“Yes, I would consider this an outbreak because there are five individuals that tested positive, two of which have died,” Meador said.


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