CORONAVIRUS

State watchdogs plan to scrutinize COVID-19 data

Iowa's Democratic state auditor joins bipartisan effort

State Auditor Rob Sand speaks July 14, 2019, at a political event outside the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. (Amir P
State Auditor Rob Sand speaks July 14, 2019, at a political event outside the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. (Amir Prellberg/Freelance)

WASHINGTON — Concerned about the accuracy and uniformity of COVID-19 data provided to the public, a coalition of fiscal watchdogs has banded together to try to help make sure states compile and track information the same way.

The state auditors — including Iowa’s — will scrutinize how health officials in their own states are collecting, reporting and monitoring data. The goals are to ensure that information presented to the public is consistent and accurate, to allow apples-to-apples comparisons among states and to help officials get a better handle on the issue if the pandemic gets worse in the coming months or there is another disaster in the future.

“This is an audit for the people. I believe it can save lives,” said Delaware State Auditor Kathy McGuiness, who came up with the idea and organized the effort.

So far, auditors from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 11 states have joined the effort. The auditors plan to release their findings to the public as soon as their work is completed.

In many states, COVID-19 data presented to the public has been conflicting, confusing or just plain wrong.

In Iowa, for instance, public health officials knowingly provided flawed data to the public for weeks in a way that could have suppressed the true impact of the pandemic. A glitch — which officials say has since been fixed — kept the latest outcomes for people who have been tested more than once from appearing in the real-time data.

In North Carolina, for another example, lagging lab test results gave a distorted view of how many tests were performed and how many people tested positive.

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In Florida, the state health department counted as COVID-19 deaths only people who claimed residency in Florida, whereas local medical examiners included in their count anyone who lived there part-time and had died in the state.

And in Washington state, officials have blamed an overwhelmed disease reporting system, software issues and changes in methodology for creating hurdles to providing timely, accurate data, including the virus positivity rate.

State and local health officials admit they’ve had problems providing up-to-date, accurate information. They say insufficient budgets, technology glitches and disjointed state and local reporting systems can make it difficult to standardize data.

Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand had already issued an audit that dealt with COVID-19 response issues when he learned about the coalition. He quickly joined, he said.

“Oversight is always important, but it is even more important in the middle of a pandemic,” Sand said. “Whether it’s hospitalization or test-taking or the kind of tests being used, the systems we create should be focused on serving people, not on politics or anything else.”

Given that so much of the coronavirus debate has become political, Sand, a Democrat, said he was particularly impressed that the coalition included Democratic and Republican state auditors. “The fact that it was bipartisan was really important,” he said.

Having state auditors take a close look at how health officials are collecting and reporting COVID-19 data is essential for the public, he said. “You have to have an independent body that comes in and calls balls and strikes. Who better than state auditors?”

In his earlier audit, Sand asserted that the process of reporting coronavirus screening results under the $26 million Test Iowa Initiative was illegal and created opportunities for fraud and errors — assertions the Republican governor and Democratic state attorney general disputed.

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Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, applauded the state auditor coalition’s effort.

“I think public health is always interested in improving our processes and ensuring we are able to have the best data and information possible,” she said. “From that standpoint, it’s wonderful.”

But Hamilton cautioned that it’s important for auditors not only to focus on health departments but also to “look downstream as to what’s coming in.”

“It’s not uncommon that reports will be received with missing or incomplete information,” she said. “The health department gets what they get. They’re left sorting things out.”

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.