CORONAVIRUS

As Iowa reopens, state's coronavirus data remains elusive

Citing lack of help from Reynolds, some keep their own tally

Gov. Kim Reynolds is seen on a monitor as she updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during an April 3
Gov. Kim Reynolds is seen on a monitor as she updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during an April 30 news conference at the state emergency operations center in Johnston. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
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For the past nine weeks, 68-year-old Debbie Buck has been isolating with her husband, Dennis Fett, at their rural home and peacock farm in western Iowa’s Pottawattamie County — which has seen its known cases of coronavirus spike over 300 percent in two weeks.

For most if not all of that time, she has been tuning in to watch Gov. Kim Reynolds’ nearly daily updates, eagerly awaiting what she perceived as among the most important information: the number of new cases and deaths.

At first, Reynolds announced daily COVID-19 cases and deaths by county, including the age ranges of those who became infected or died.

As the tallies swelled, Reynolds’ office with the Iowa Department of Public Health assigned regional scores as a way of evaluating the pandemic’s spread, tying the overall score to setting public policies.

But then in early May, Reynolds’ reporting practices changed. She stopped announcing daily cases and deaths on TV. She stopped sending out those statistics with news releases to the media and posts to the governor’s website.

She instead unveiled a new coronavirus.iowa.gov website showing total cases, deaths and tests on a statewide and county level. It provided statewide demographic data in percentages — but not raw numbers, and not by county.

The dashboard on the revised website includes a range of other COVID-19 metrics, like number of Iowans who have recovered; percentage of positive tests; and long-term care outbreaks.

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But while the site provides graphics showing cases and recoveries over time, it does not provide such a timeline graphic for deaths — making it hard for Iowans to easily gauge whether they’re rising or falling.

The site also fails to provide demographic data by county for cases, recoveries and deaths — including age range, gender, race and ethnicity. It provides those demographic details only in statewide percentages — not raw numbers.

Without the governor’s daily announcement, Buck — scrambling for a way to gauge her state’s progress in fighting COVID-19 — began keeping her own spreadsheet and doing her own math.

“I have to add and subtract and figure out how many deaths there were,” she told The Gazette. “I have been keeping my own chart and tally since this new website started.”

Reynolds’ decision to de-emphasize the number of new cases and deaths on television, and to stop providing demographic data for communities — including that overall regional score she had pointed to as important in setting policy — comes at a time she is increasing the ability of Iowans to sit down for a meal at a restaurant, get a haircut, work out at a gym and go shopping.

Reynolds said Iowans would need to decide for themselves, taking into account their own circumstances, whether to venture out.

“Everybody is going to make their own decisions,” she said. “Even though we have eased the mitigation requirements on some of our businesses, restaurants, salons, churches, you still have individual businesses … some are ready to open up, and they’re moving forward. Others are continuing to make sure that they can do it in a safe and responsible manner. And then Iowans are going to take the responsibility to decide if they are ready to go out and participate at the businesses or go to a restaurant.”

But, western Iowa’s Buck asked, how can Iowans do that without accessible and consumable information about community spread at the local level?

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“It seems to me she’s trying to avoid it, especially the death count, so people don’t hear it,” she said. “If you don’t hear it and don’t think about it, it will go away, and it will be OK to open up. That concerns me.”

‘More timely data’

Addressing concerns about the data being released, governor’s spokesman Pat Garrett praised the timeliness of the revamped website — noting the state is giving Iowans “more information than they had before.”

Instead of updating news conference viewers with numbers that already are a day old, Garrett said, the website now provides data as of 11:59 p.m. — and the state is working to make it more timely with updates more regularly, he said.

“What we are providing is much more timely data than we’ve ever had before,” he said.

Nonetheless, that more current data still is available 11 hours before Reynolds goes on live TV. Providing it on the website instead of also on television does not reach Iowans who don’t have internet access or familiarity in how to use it.

As to removal from its website of regional COVID-19 rankings previously used to assess the severity of the pandemic’s spread across Iowa, Garrett said that data has lost relevance.

“With Test Iowa, the state now has the ability to drill down to a county, city, ZIP code to analyze the spread of the virus and determine mitigation strategies,” he said.

But the state has not shared that level of local data with the public.

Garrett didn’t address The Gazette’s questions about why the state isn’t providing the same data and graphics for deaths as it is for other metrics — or why the governor stopped announcing daily cases and deaths during her TV briefings.

After fielding a range of queries from reporters about the data gaps, however, Reynolds opened her news conference Friday in a more familiar fashion — first announcing, “Over the week, we have seen our positive case count stabilize.

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“Today, we are reporting that we have 374 new positive cases and 3,888 negative cases,” she said. “Days to double continues to improve. Today it’s 18 days, which speaks to the slowing of the spread of the virus.”

She reported, “Unfortunately, 18 Iowans have lost their lives to COVID-19.”

In response to media questions earlier in the week, Reynolds asserted that information “is not being limited.”

“We’re trying to provide more access to Iowans, and we’re trying to do it in a more timely fashion,” she said, noting she, too, felt some “frustration” in navigating the changing website.

“Even as I’m trying to manage through the system, it’s changed, it’s changing daily as we’re learning more and trying to provide Iowans with more timely information,” Reynolds said. “I like the graphs. But it is changing, and it is fluid right now.”

Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said her department is taking the feedback and making adjustments.

“I can tell you that they’re actively working to provide some more information,” she said. “We’re doing it carefully. We’re doing it diligently. But we do expect in the next week or so to be able to provide some more functionality. And some of the things that you’re referencing that are currently lacking, I would expect to see some of them come back for you.”

‘It’s frustrating’

The information is coming late, though, as many previously-shuttered parts of Iowa’s economy already have blinked back to life, reigniting marketplace competition and putting some business owners in a tight spot, according to Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines.

“What I’ve been getting is, why don’t they track county-level data anymore?” she said of the feedback she has received from constituents.

“If you have a business in Polk County, or in Johnson County, you want to know what the data is among your customers,” she said. “They’re the ones that are going to be frequenting your business.”

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Celsi said lawmakers — like the public — stopped getting the daily case and death totals they relied on, prompting her to reach out to the governor’s office for more information. But her follow-up questions have gone unanswered, she said, and “It’s frustrating.”

“Nobody’s personally blaming Kim Reynolds for the pandemic,” she said. “But they are now starting to blame her for any actions moving forward that involve opening up the state without data to support it. And I think that’s where I would hold her.”

Celsi said she’s sent emails to the Public Health Department asking for information, arguing, “You guys keep telling us this data is here and it’s not.”

Reynolds has urged Iowans with questions or concerns to call — although there is no clear number for data-related questions on the website dashboard.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he, too, has concerns about changes in how the state is reporting data. He also has started maintaining his own spreadsheet.

“The new dashboard made it really significantly harder for Iowans to track the day-to-day progress of the pandemic, unless you looked at the website yesterday and wrote down the numbers the day before that, or the day before that,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.

“We’re collecting the data. We should make it available to Iowans with an interest in tracking this pandemic.”

That, according to Bolkcom, should include data on testing — which experts and analysts have heralded as paramount to any reopening effort. Although the governor’s dashboard shows total testing, county-level testing and a daily progression of testing in Iowa, it doesn’t break down the numbers by type or mode of testing — including how much has been accomplished under the $26 million Test Iowa Initiative.

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Instead, the state’s dashboard is providing only the number of Test Iowa assessments Iowans have completed to determine who qualifies for a test.

Assuming the state has this information — daily number of tests by type and demographic details at the local level — 69-year-old Dennis Fett, who said he voted for Reynolds, argues the governor should release it.

“I don’t care if she tells me bad news,” he said. “I just want to know it so I can make my own decisions.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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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.