CORONAVIRUS

Top public health official defends state's coronavirus tracking, promises transparency

Dr. Caitlin Pedati said state remains committed to providing timely, accurate data around pandemic

IDPH Medical Director and State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati speaks during a news conference updating Iowan's on th
IDPH Medical Director and State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati speaks during a news conference updating Iowan’s on the status of COVID-19 cases in April. (Brian Powers/Des Moines Register

On the day the state surpassed 1,000 deaths related to COVID-19, Iowa’s top public health official Wednesday deflected a question about whether stricter measures are needed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In an interview with The Gazette, Dr. Caitlin Pedati would not say whether she believes state officials should mandate certain mitigation policies. She instead pointed to the responsibility of all Iowans to wear masks and maintaining social distance, among other personal efforts.

“In my role as subject matter expert, I’m going to continue to provide the best possible public health recommendations for people,” she said.

“On a personal level, on a community level and on a professional level, I remind my own friends and family of the recommendations that I’ve provided, the recommendation that I adhere to. We should take every opportunity we can to encourage each other and share the messages about following the guidance of public health.”

After recent news reports called into question the accuracy of databases meant to help the public track the spread of COVID-19 across the state, Pedati defended the system while emphasizing the commitment of state agencies to continue improving during the pandemic and beyond.

When asked whether local leaders could trust using the state’s database to make key decisions in connection with the novel coronavirus, she said state officials were doing everything they could to provide the most accurate information.

“I absolutely recognize that this is a challenge, that it’s important and that people need accurate and up-to-date information to make their choices,” said Pedati, epidemiologist and state medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “I want to reiterate that I remain committed to making sure that we’re providing people with as much information as we possibly can.”

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Pedati spoke to The Gazette after a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services reached out to the newspaper with the offer for a one-on-one interview with her.

The glitch

Earlier this week, the Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed an issue within its state COVID-19 database that backdated individual positive test results, thus possibly not showing the severity of more-recent results.

Officials fixed the error as of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Pedati said.

The glitch happened when Iowans tested negative earlier this year, but then tested positive recently. Instead of recording the positive result when it actually happened, it was labeled under the individual’s initial test results from weeks or months before, according to reporting from the Associated Press.

State officials became aware of the issue toward the end of July, Pedati said during her interview with The Gazette.

She attributed the issue to a limitation in the Iowa Disease Surveillance System, an electronic security system used to monitor and facilitate disease reporting and surveillance.

According to Pedati, officials knew there would be limitations to the system as it was “never designed for this kind of volume” seen during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to be clear that the data issue we’re talking about did not affect any of the case investigation or contact tracing work that was done and it didn’t affect any individual,” Pedati said.

But what it does affect are the dates of positive tests in Iowa on the public-facing website, which are used to calculate 14-day positivity rates.

“We know that’s incredibly important, particularly as we’re looking today as kids and teachers go back to school,” she said.

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The governor ordered schools to return to at least 50 percent in-person classroom instruction while the positivity rate in their county remained below 15 percent on average.

In fixing the issue this week, Pedati said officials found only one county — Plymouth — that had crossed the 15 percent threshold, increasing from 14.4 percent to 16.3 percent.

Overall, 23 counties had an increase in their positivity rate while 76 counties remained the same or saw a decrease.

State officials hope to direct federal funding to improve the Iowa Disease Surveillance System in the coming weeks. In addition, Pedati said the disease tracking system will undergo updates and adjustments as new guidance from federal public health officials is released and new technology becomes available.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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