Iowa is now working to predict the spread of COVID-19, but state officials will control what information the public sees

2019 novel coronavirus — CDC

A month after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state, the Iowa Department of Public Health agreed to provide the University of Iowa College of Public Health with the data necessary to develop models to predict the spread and severity of COVID-19 in Iowa, as well as the likely number of deaths in the state. But that agreement gives IDPH the power to control what the public gets to know about those models, the Associated Press’s Ryan J. Foley reported on Monday.

IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter announced last week the department was finalizing the details of a contract with the College of Public Health for predictive models of COVID-19 impact in the state. According to a copy of the contract obtained by the AP, the agreement was concluded on April 7.

The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported on March 8. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported on Jan. 20.

Gov. Reynolds and her advisers haven’t been using predictive models to guide their decisions about how to respond to COVID-19. They have instead focused on metrics that track the use of health care resources in the state.

One expert on epidemiological modeling criticized that approach as waiting for crises to occur rather than trying to prevent them.

“It seems like waiting to see how many older Iowans become infected,” Dr. Eli a professor of Internal Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and a member of the Iowa Infection Prevention Research Group, told the Press-Citizen. “Instead of tracking the spread of disease to protect older Iowans, we are using them like a canary in the coal mine to determine how bad things are. [Using the IDPH approach], we have to wait for older people to die before implementing maximum protective measures.”

IDPH isn’t paying the College of Public Health for the models. Instead, the department agreed to provide the college’s experts with the data needed to develop the model for free. In return, IDPH will have control of what information from the modeling program is made public for the next year.

“The contract says the model is intended for use by the department ‘internally with other state agencies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,’” Foley reported. “It bars the university from publishing any findings before April 2021 unless approved by the state epidemiologist.”

At the governor’s press conference on April 7, the same day the contract was signed, Reisetter said there is no “firm date” for when the projections and models would be ready, but “we hope to have it in the days and weeks to come.”

According to the AP, the contract states the college will deliver the “predictive models within two weeks of receiving the department’s patient data, or on another mutually agreed upon schedule.”

On March 29, Reisetter said, “We’re thinking that we might see a peak [in the number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa] — a first peak — in the next two to three weeks.”