CORONAVIRUS

Peak nearing, Iowa begins contract to create coronavirus models

Deputy Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health Sarah Reisetter give an update on COVID-19 at the State Emergenc
Deputy Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health Sarah Reisetter give an update on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, IA Thursday, March 26, 2020 Thursday, March 26, 2020. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/Pool, The Register)

IOWA CITY — University experts working to develop models to help Iowa public health officials predict and manage the coronavirus pandemic are racing against time.

The Iowa Department of Public Health and the University of Iowa College of Public Health didn’t reach a formal agreement to work together to create Iowa-specific pandemic models until April 7, a month after the state’s first coronavirus cases were confirmed.

The contract obtained by the Associated Press calls for the college to produce predictive models within two weeks of receiving the department’s patient data, or on another mutually agreed upon schedule.

The goal is to help Gov. Kim Reynolds and her aides predict the severity of the outbreak and make decisions about specific mitigation strategies. But the number of cases is expected to peak later this month and it’s unclear whether any model will be completed before then.

Department officials, who released the contract to AP late Friday, didn’t immediately respond to inquiries seeking comment. But its deputy director, Sarah Reisetter, tempered expectations for the project at news conferences last week. She cautioned that the models could take days or weeks to develop and that projections could be difficult to make given the limited amount of coronavirus testing in the state to date.

Instead of basing decisions on how the virus might spread, Iowa officials have responded to the outbreak largely by tracking outcomes, such as the numbers of people hospitalized and outbreaks at nursing homes. They also track data showing hospitals currently have enough beds and ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients. The governor has argued the data support her refusal to issue a stay-at-home order since closing schools and some businesses nearly a month ago.

On Sunday, Iowa reported a total of 1,587 infections and 41 deaths tied to the pandemic, many of them from outbreaks at nursing homes.

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The contract outlines an Iowa-specific model that will predict the number, severity and timing of cases, including hospitalizations and deaths. It calls for adapting the model to predict how shifts in strategies, such as a stay-at-home order, might “change public health outcomes.”

The contract says the model is intended for use by the department “internally with other state agencies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.” It bars the university from publishing any findings before April 2021 unless approved by the state epidemiologist.

The contract’s first priority is to have college experts examine existing models, such as a widely-cited one from the University of Washington. An analysis of those models was due in recent days.

The Washington model forecasts that Iowa will have just enough ICU beds to treat patients, that its peak will come April 30 and that 743 residents will die by August. Iowa officials have criticized that model for not fully crediting the mitigation strategies the governor has ordered.

While Iowa projections could be difficult to make, Reisetter said the best approach in the meantime was for state officials to prepare to respond to any surge in hospitalizations and residents to keep practicing social distancing.

College of Public Health spokesman Daniel McMillan said in an email last week that the project was just getting underway and scientists were busy “given the urgency of the work they’re doing.” The college won’t be paid under the contract but will get the department’s data for free.

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