Trust In Iowa’s COVID Data Erodes During Critical Back-To-School Period

By Isabella Murray

August 25, 2020

About a week after the Iowa Department of Public Health admitted and attempted to fix a large scale glitch in their COVID-19 positivity data, independent data trackers and school officials are left weary of the validity of current state data during a consequential back-to-school period for Iowa districts.

Independent calculations from Iowa COVID-19 Tracker, a former IDPH employee and others have long suggested the state had been backdating positive coronavirus cases, which was confirmed last Monday when an IDPH epidemiologist acknowledged a system error in an email to Iowa City-based nurse practitioner Dana Jones. State epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati addressed the issue in Iowa’s disease surveillance reporting system on Wednesday, resulting in a glitch fix that made 79 counties’ positivity rates lower and 20 counties’ higher.

The corrected numbers, though still inconsistent with those of independent data trackers, should even out in about ten days, said retired IDPH employee Rita Gergely based on what she knows about the over 15-year-old system. But the long-inaccurate state data is now leveling while students are returning to school based on a positivity metric instituted by the Governor. Some school districts have been stumped on where to find correct numbers to determine if classes can begin in-person again during the pandemic.   

“It’s very convenient that this all happened, you know, when the Governor is trying to get people to go back to school,” said Gergely, a retired surveillance coordinator in the bureau of lead poisoning prevention at IDPH who calculates her own 14-day positivity rates.

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Pedati said she became aware of the glitch in late July, before Reynolds on Aug. 6 released 14-day rolling positivity rates for each Iowa county, serving as benchmarks for sending students back to school. According to the state, a county’s positivity rate must be at or more than 15% and absenteeism at 10% or higher for at least two weeks in order for consideration of all-online learning requests.

“Towards the end of July we recognized an issue where the date that was being assigned to an individual who was tested multiple times and recorded on our public-facing web page,” Pedati said in an interview with WeAreIowa. “Now this has to do with a limitation of our electronic reporting system … it’s a system that we know needs to be improved.”

Pedati also confirmed in the interview that the glitch is due to the fact that the system had detected a test code and a person already in the system, then backdated results to being received on the date of the original test.

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“The system was never designed to handle the capacity of testing. I’m just frankly surprised it hasn’t crashed,” said Gergely. “And yet they have led everybody on for this long believing that everything was accurate … That is the big issue. A lack of transparency.” 

Gergely said she had heard from a former IDPH colleague that now all released information from the department has to first pass through the Governor’s office. 

“It has never been like that at the health department. Never,” she said.

Sara Willette, a widely-followed COVID data tracker, just put up a new page on her website comparing the state’s data after its fix to what they themselves reported on every single day of the pandemic from tests, positives, recoveries and deaths– the data she has been analyzing since the dawn of coronavirus’ emergence in the state.

“There are only like five data points that actually match. The section is called Iowa’s Data Changed. I wanted to basically bludgeon people because nothing matches,” said Willette, an Ames resident who runs Iowa COVID-19 Tracker. “The thing is, I mean, there’s a possibility that these are the results that did occur at the time. But because they’ve screwed with the data so many times now…”

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The state data alterations–along with discrepancies in local reporting— last week have already resulted in the Fort Dodge district’s announcement that classes will begin on Sept. 3 instead of Sept. 8, the start date agreed upon after Webster County’s positivity rate shot above 15%. Tweaks in the state data now has the county listed at a 2% positivity rate on the state’s website while independent data collector’s rolling positivity rates for the county shifted to -3%, which concerns Willette.

“For the last, going on 24 hours now, I’ve been calming down thousands of Iowans because they’re like, we can’t trust any of this. Now, what do we trust? I’ve been answering hundreds and hundreds of messages all day,” she said. 

This distrust also includes a number of school districts that are now relying on her data over what the state reports.

Iowa School Finance Information Services, a private consulting company that about three hundred different school districts across the state subscribe to annually has been in contact with Willette about distributing her data, said Partner Margaret Buckton. 

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Throughout the pandemic, the company has been providing information on COVID decision-making processes via webinars and memos. Willette’s numbers are slated for distribution by ISFIS this week.

“We’re encouraging school districts to look at other pieces of data too, because sometimes [the state’s] could be below that 15% that the governor’s proclamation requires, and they could still have a COVID outbreak in their community,” Buckton said.

Buckton is also a legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network, which includes 18 of the largest districts in the state. She said some of them are aware of Willette’s data source, along with some local departments of public health. 

I worry now,” Willette said. “Genuine concern. I know I’m not alone. So I’ve got thousands of Iowans repeating the same concerns … At this point, our government, our state government, refuses to take responsibility to do the thing they need to do in order to protect everybody. So now it’s just Iowans protecting each other. I’m charged with the responsibility.”


by Isabella Murray
Posted 8/25/20

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