Dubuque County public health and elected officials expressed diminishing confidence in results from new rapid-response testing machines — including around COVID-19 results at Sunnycrest Manor — on Monday.
During a work session of the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors on Monday, Supervisor Ann McDonough revealed that the administration of Sunnycrest Manor had reported to them that testing of all residents and staff returned four COVID-19 positives among residents and two among staff.
These tests were required after the long-term-care facility’s first two residents and two members of staff tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 9.
Those two new positives among the residents would bring the facility’s total to four, which is one more than the benchmark needed to be reached for the Iowa Department of Public Health to count a facility as having an outbreak. But as of Monday afternoon, the state of Iowa’s COVID-19 dashboard listed no outbreaks at Sunnycrest or any other long-term-care facilities in Dubuque County.
McDonough explained that one reason for that was because the Sunnycrest administration questions those results.
“From our administrator (Cris Kirsch), we understand that they think they have some false positives,” she said.
Sunnycrest office staff reported that Kirsch was out sick on Monday. A message for comment on her cell phone was not returned. Why she questioned the positives’ accuracy is unclear.
In any case, supervisors expressed concern about the accuracy of the rapid testing machines.
“If they are considering that a false positive, how do we know (another is) not a false negative?” asked Supervisor Dave Baker.
This is, perhaps, especially pressing given that, according to supervisors, several other long-term-care facilities in the county are using similar machines to conduct testing. And Dubuque County Public Health Director Patrice Lambert said any difficulty would be multiplied, since — while all of those machines were provided by the IDPH — they are all different models of the machine.
The county also has partnered with the IDPH in a pilot project, placing one of the rapid-response machines at the Visiting Nurse Association, 660 Iowa St. That was expected to be used for targeted populations — people in vulnerable demographics who come for appointments at the clinic and possibly home-bound individuals. But now, VNA Director Stacey Killian is skeptical.
“I have a lot of concerns,” she told supervisors. “It’s kind of useless to utilize this machine until we know it’s accurate.”
Killian said that she would be addressing questions about accuracy, as well as several other aspects of operating the machine which arose during VNA staff’s training, to Abbott — the machine’s manufacturer — on Friday. Lambert said that Kirsch also had already been in contact with the IDPH.
County officials also voiced their unease about releasing the state of Iowa’s COVID-19 data to the public, in general.
McDonough said she was particularly frustrated by the low numbers of individuals tested being reported each day — due to the state only counting individuals who have been tested for the first time, rather than everyone tested each day.
“You cannot determine a positivity rate from the tests they give you because you cannot see most of them,” she said. “How many thousands of tests are being reported but not shown? The (state reported) positivity rate is completely made up. What citizens are being told is stunningly inept.”
McDonough proposed having a work session with the IDPH and the Telegraph Herald to see how each is coming up with their positivity rate numbers. For several weeks, TH editorial staff have calculated the rates based on daily numbers provided by the state. The TH’s calculation continues to exceed the state’s reported 14-day positivity rate due to the state’s practice of not counting recent confirmed cases until all data is received, such as the date of birth of the testee. This practice drives down the positivity rate even though those cases have been confirmed in a specific county.
Lambert said that she shared some of McDonough’s goals.
“We are continuously asking IDPH for the validation of the information, for any more methods we can do to be more transparent,” Lambert said.
Lambert also announced that, after many weeks of asking, the IDPH has acquiesced to allowing Dubuque County health department to release some information down to the zip code level. This would allow them and smaller community leaders to know where in the county the numbers are popping up.
She said that the IDPH would have to consult with County Attorney C.J. May III to get his opinion on the health department’s plan to release the information and stick to the state’s stipulation that only areas with six positives or more can be reported.