CORONAVIRUS

Is Test Iowa as successful as governor boasts?

'There's a stunning lack of transparency,' lawmaker says

A National Guard member holds up a sign Thursday as cars enter at the Test Iowa coronavirus testing site at the Kirkwood
A National Guard member holds up a sign Thursday as cars enter at the Test Iowa coronavirus testing site at the Kirkwood Community College Continuing Education Training Center in Cedar Rapids. Those who have appointments to be tested are required to show a QR code in order to enter. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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In urging Iowans to get tested for COVID-19 as she continues to reopen businesses, Gov. Kim Reynolds has stressed her Test Iowa Initiative and its pop-up sites are just “one tool in the toolbox.”

Iowans also can get tested at hospitals, clinics and care facilities — depending on a person’s circumstances — creating banquet of testing options, which Reynolds said is key to keeping coronavirus cases from spiking as restaurants, bars, malls and other venues blink back to life.

And more Iowans have been getting checked — according to data the governor and the Iowa Department of Public Health release daily, with about 15,000 Iowans tested last week.

The numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story — including just how many of the state’s total tests have been performed under the $26 million Test Iowa Initiative, which organizers in April committed would conduct 3,000 tests a day.

Considering that total testing numbers on many days have hovered around 3,000 or below, lawmakers and constituents have expressed concerns about whether they’re getting what the public paid for under the no-bid contract.

“There’s a stunning lack of transparency on the data for Test Iowa, to see how many tests have been conducted at each individual site, as well as their efficacy and how well they’re working,” Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, told The Gazette.

There are other concerns with the program, too — including the challenges Iowans have reported about getting appointments at nearby sites; questions of efficiency and productivity at the individual sites; lack of transparency around how the sites are chosen and kept open; lengthy wait times for results; and accuracy of results once they arrive.

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“It seems like confidence is the most important thing for families and small businesses and for our state’s economy,” Hall said. “And at the core of creating confidence for the public is the ability to know that we can trust our data and that the numbers the public is hearing are ones that reflect reality on the ground. And that seems to be one of the biggest question marks.”

The governor’s office didn’t answer The Gazette’s questions last week about the Test Iowa program — including how many of the Iowans tested so far have done so under the program; whether the state is tracking test numbers by program and site; and, if so, why it hasn’t made that data public.

At a daily briefing, Reynolds just days ago boasted that about 15,000 Iowans have been tested at Test Iowa sites — which would put the daily test average far below the 3,000 promised when the program debuted in late April.

She noted last Tuesday’s Test Iowa totals reached 2,258, qualifying as a “new daily record,” with more than 2,700 Test Iowa appointments on tap for last Wednesday. When asked by a reporter that day when she projected Test Iowa would meet the 3,000-tests-a-day threshold, she conflated total test numbers with Test Iowa numbers.

“I think we’re doing pretty close. I think we’ve had over 88,000 Iowans that have been tested in the month of May,” she said. “We’ve hit capacity for the last three days in Polk County … We hit another high scheduled today.

“So we’re there,” she said. “We have the capacity, and we’re continuing to see Iowans use it.”

Reynolds reiterated that sentiment Friday, reporting during her briefing, “Yesterday, we had another record.”

“We had 2,503 tests completed just with Test Iowa,” she said. “We have over 3,000 tests that are already scheduled for today at the various sites across the state of Iowa.

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“So we’re going to continue to enhance the processes, continue to look at what the data is telling us, and if we continue to see a need, we will adjust what we’re doing to meet the need of Iowans.”

Scheduling snags

In order to take a COVID-19 test under the Test Iowa program, residents must complete an online assessment at TestIowa.com that poses a range of questions including age, risk factors, living situation and symptoms if any.

At the end of the assessment, Iowans learn whether they’ve qualified for a test — which most now do, since Reynolds about a week ago announced anyone can get a Test Iowa appointment, regardless of symptoms or risk factors.

But scheduling a test isn’t so easy. The program’s drive-through test sites, at this point, are in 11 of the state’s 99 counties. Many who complete the assessment report they find there are no times or dates available at their nearest location. In some cases, the nearest available appointment is an hour or so away. Those without a good option are asked to fill out a scheduling application — bringing them in days later.

Iowa cities with TestIowa sites

The governor’s office didn’t answer The Gazette’s questions about how many people who have completed the assessment are waiting to book an appointment, how many appointments are scheduled and how long on average people are waiting for a slot at their nearest site.

Hall said he had a family member denied a Test Iowa appointment weeks ago and then — right after the nearest Sioux City site unexpectedly closed — now qualified. With the closure, though, the family member would have to drive an hour for an appointment — raising for Hall more questions about how the state is deciding where to operate test sites.

Reynolds, in response to questions during her briefing about access and waits, voiced enthusiasm for the level of interest.

According to state data, more than 559,000 Iowans had taken the assessment by Saturday morning. Slightly more than 150,000 people have actually been tested, though the state doesn’t report how many in that total come under the Test Iowa program.

“I wouldn’t be discouraged if you can’t get in immediately,” Reynolds said. “We actually have been at capacity for the last three days. It is exciting to see what we’re able to offer Iowans all across the state.”

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She reported virus activity and population density among the factors considered in deciding “where we move the test sites to and how we can start to maybe expand or move to address the needs of Iowans.”

HOPE FOR THE BEST

Shari Hintermeister, 70, of North Liberty, got in and out of her Test Iowa appointment Friday morning in Cedar Rapids relatively quickly — weeks after first taking the online assessment and being denied due to lack of symptoms.

Following Hintermeister’s denial, Test Iowa continued sending her emails asking about any new symptoms. And then the program advised her she now qualified since it was open to all.

“I obviously jumped on that opportunity,” she said. “I wasn’t going to pass it up by any means.”

When Hintermeister rolled up for her appointment at 10:30 a.m. Friday, only a few other cars were at the site outside the Kirkwood Community College. She got in and out “lickety-split” and reported only minor discomfort when practitioners swabbed her nostrils.

Hintermeister, although symptom-free and practicing strict isolation, has been anxious about her potential to get sick considering her age. For that reason, she would have liked to get a test sooner. And she does have some qualms about validity of results — having heard concerns with the system’s efficacy.

After the Cedar Rapids site opened, Linn County officials complained it had tested just 334 people over four days — and even so, almost 10 percent of the test results came back inconclusive and jeopardized the ability to perform tracing to see who those with the infection had come into close contact with.

Mostly, Hintermeister said she hopes finally taking the test will put her mind at ease.

“I’m hoping my test is going to be negative, and nothing will happen to it and I can rely on the results,” she said. “But it does give you second thoughts.”

Legislative oversight?

Rep. Hall, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines and ranking member of the House Government Oversight Committee, are hoping to answer their constituent questions — issuing a public call Thursday for “an investigation into the state’s $26 million no-bid contract for Test Iowa.”

When the Republican-controlled legislative session resumes next week, the Democratic lawmakers hope to kick-start an investigation — noting the dearth of answers and information from the state sends a message.

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“It’s clear that Test Iowa failed to meet the goals outlined by Gov. Reynolds,” the lawmakers wrote in a joint letter.

When Reynolds in April announced she had approved the contract with Utah companies to launch the program, she said its $26 million price tag would be paid by the state’s share of federal aid. The tests are free to Iowans who take them.

Gaines said she’s heard a range of Test Iowa concerns, including the delay in meeting the 3,000-tests-a-day promise, long wait times and lack of transparency.

Hall said he spent a week trying to glean information from a governor’s liaison about the rumored closure of the Test Iowa site in his Sioux City district.

“And he in fact never was able to confirm with me that the site was indeed closing — that included the day before the site closed,” Hall said. “He was not able or willing to confirm that to me, even though I had asked. And I had to read about it in local news, which I think is the wrong approach to work with any lawmaker, regardless of their political party.”

Should the governor’s office continue to not respond to lawmakers’ requests for more information about Test Iowa, Hall said he hopes to compel the data through the legislative process.

“If the Government Oversight Committee is unwilling to do its job, House Democrats will seek to review the contract and its implementation during the appropriations process,” according to letter by Hall and Gaines. “If Iowans can’t get the answers they deserve regarding Test Iowa, it may be time to cancel the contract.”

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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.