CORONAVIRUS

Debate swirls over COVID-19 data at University of Northern Iowa

(FILE PHOTO) A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar
(FILE PHOTO) A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Following pushback from faculty leaders, the University of Northern Iowa has made modest changes to how it reports COVID-19 positives by providing some data on cases not tied to its Student Health Center and by breaking down some cases by how many are students and how many are employees.

But UNI’s data dashboard still doesn’t paint a full picture of its COVID-19 conditions — fueling debate over what the university can and can’t release publicly.

UNI isn’t making clear just how many total known cases it has on campus — a number that would combine positives identified through Student Health and those self-reported by students, faculty and staff tested at off-site locations.

It isn’t breaking down by employees and students its on-campus cases — which account for the majority of positives.

Although UNI started classes Aug. 17, it has publicized self-reported positives identified through the Panther Health Survey only since Sept. 1. UNI received 54 self-reports in the last two weeks. Its on-campus positives through Sunday were 135.

But because UNI officials said its self-reported cases also could be counted in Student Health totals, they warned, “The numbers should not be combined for a grand total.”

UNI spokesman Steve Schmadeke said the data dashboard is evolving and “it is inaccurate to say the total known cases aren’t being reported.”

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“Just because cases in some categories are not currently divided by students vs. employees, this does not mean UNI isn’t providing an accurate public depiction of known COVID-19 positives on campus,” Schmadeke said.

When asked why the delay in publishing self-reported numbers — which Iowa State University and the University of Iowa reported back to mid-August — UNI officials said the campus’ original data system “was set up to share information from our Student Health Center from individuals who were being tested for COVID-19.”

“We had not, at that time, developed the capacity to share our self-reported data,” according to Joseph Rayzor, co-chair of UNI’s COVID-19 Response Team. “These two data streams are different in that the information from our (Student Health) is actual medical data, and the data from the self-reports is survey data.”

Officials cited that difference in justifying the choice not to break out on-campus data by students and employees.

“UNI is treating all medical data following (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (Iowa Department of Public Health) guidelines to maintain the confidentiality of this health information,” Rayzor said.

He said the Black Hawk County Department of Public Health advised UNI it should not release “confidential health information” if it involves numbers fewer than five people.

Schmadeke also stressed universities are taking different approaches to their respective COVID-19 responses, and that comparisons are not “apples to apples.”

But faculty leadership pointed to those differences in their pushback — noting other campuses are reporting the smaller numbers. ISU on Monday reported four staff tested positive on campus between Sept. 7 and 13. It reported two staff members tested positive at an off-campus site during that time period.

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The UI on Monday reported four employee positives over a three-day period. On Wednesday, it reported five employee cases in two days.

“How does knowing there is even one faculty/staff member with COVID reveal anything?” UNI professor and president of UNI’s faculty union Becky Hawbaker asked. “It’s one out of a couple thousand of us.

Hawbaker is among 27 campus community members serving on UNI’s COVID Response Team, charged with overseeing COVID-19 incidence on campus and responding to cases.

But Hawbaker told The Gazette that even in her capacity on the team, she and others have lacked the necessary information to do their job. Last week, team members learned they could have more information if they sign a confidentiality agreement threatening termination from UNI if breached.

Hawbaker contends the form “basically forces us to accept their definition of what is private information and forbid us from sharing it in any way. “To me, this makes me complicit in hiding data I believe should be freely available.”

One member of UNI’s response team resigned Monday after realizing her potential conflict as a member of the Black Hawk County Board of Health. UNI environmental health science professor Catherine Zemen said she chose to resign from the university team because her role with the county health board is more central.

When asked whether UNI’s confidentiality agreement played a role, Zeman said it could have put her on a tough spot.

“Who knows what could come of that,” she said. “But whatever could come of that, it would not be a good situation for me to be in.”

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Schmadeke said the confidentiality agreement “in no way prevents members of our COVID Response Team from raising public questions about UNI’s COVID-19 response.”

“In fact, we invited the 26 UNI community members to be a part of our COVID planning specifically so we could increase transparency and get a diverse array of perspectives.”

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