A spokesman for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday defended the delay in announcing a flaw in the state’s COVID-19 data system that led to inaccuracies in the reporting of new cases and 14-day positivity rates in counties across the state.
One day prior, the governor had said she learned of the backdating issue last week, but state officials did not acknowledge it until Wednesday in response to press inquiries — two days after emails surfaced in which an Iowa Department of Public Health official said there was a problem of that sort.
Spokesman Pat Garrett said Friday that the governor’s office wanted to research the issue further before announcing it to the public.
“We want to make sure fully that we understand what it is,” Garrett said.
But he did not respond to further clarification on when last week Reynolds first learned of the flaw.
The system flaw affected the reporting of both new positive and negative cases. In essence, the results for any Iowan who has received multiple COVID-19 tests were being inaccurately attributed to the date of that person’s first test.
If that test came more than two weeks earlier, the results were not being represented in the 14-day positivity rates of the state or counties.
Those rates are a key metric as students across the state return to school.
State officials said late last month that school leaders only can ask for permission to close buildings or districts if their counties have a 14-day average positivity rate of at least 15% and at least 10% of students are absent, or if the county has a 20% positivity rate over 14 days.
Iowa Public Health Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati on Thursday disclosed that she was aware of the backdating system flaw in late July.
In an interview with the TH, Pedati also disclosed that inconclusive tests were being counted — factored in basically as negative results — when the state calculates 14-day positivity averages. Their inclusion drives down positivity rates. As of Friday night, Dubuque County had about 170 such tests, based on state figures, out of a total test count of about 22,800.
Statewide figures show about 13,500 such inconclusive tests.
Pedati also explained that some confirmed cases of COVID-19 attributed to a county are not counted initially in the positivity rates if they are missing key information such as the date, the individual’s name or date of birth, and the test type. They only are added in after those issues are rectified, a process that can take days or weeks.
She acknowledged that this time lag results in fewer cases being calculated into the daily and 14-day positivity rates.
During the seven-day stretch from Aug. 14 to Thursday, the overall number of confirmed positive cases in Dubuque County increased by 124. However, as of Friday, the state website reflected just 73 of these cases on the individual daily totals in that seven-day stretch — a 41% decrease from the total number.
As a result, the state-determined positivity rates are consistently below those calculated by the TH using the state’s overall totals.
For example, over the 14-day period that ended at 5 p.m. Thursday, there were 243 new confirmed cases and 2,396 new tests in the county, equating to a positivity rate of 10.1%.
In contrast, the state site lists the county’s 14-day positivity rate for the period ending Thursday at 6.9%.
When asked if Reynolds was aware of inconclusive tests being factored into positivity rates or that positive tests missing information were not being counted immediately, Garrett said he did not know if she was specifically made aware but labeled the issues as “common knowledge.”
However, in repeated conversations over weeks, neither Garrett himself, officials in the Iowa Department of Public Health nor other public health officials ever suggested either of those issues could be part of the reason that the state’s positivity rates were consistently lower than those calculated by the TH.
Reached Friday, more local leaders expressed concerns about the inconsistencies in the state’s data.
Phil Bormann, chief administrator for Holy Family Catholic Schools, said he had concerns regarding how the state’s COVID-19 rates were reported but that the state’s numbers only made up a part of the criteria in determining if students would be allowed to return to school.
“We don’t base our decisions on one indicator,” Bormann said. “We look at multiple different factors before making that kind of decision.”
Iowa Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, said inaccuracies found in the state’s data were “disconcerting.”
“Families are making decisions about how to operate based on this data,” she said. “They need to operate with good data in front of them.”
Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, said the flaws found in the state’s data are “egregious” but added that other metrics need to be examined in order for the state to determine the spread of the virus, such as the infection transmission rate.
“Many of us believe that this is the wrong measure altogether, and the thresholds for decision-making are unreasonable, potentially putting many more people in danger than necessary,” he said.
Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, and Iowa Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.