This past week, Polly Carver-Kimm, the lead spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Public Health, resigned from her job. After serving in that role for 12 years, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, Carver-Kimm said she was forced out of the job because she aggressively shared information with the media. In a pandemic, when timely, accurate information can save lives, the person whose job it was to communicate with the media lost her job for doing just that.
In an email to the Des Moines Register, Carver-Kimm stated, “I am embarrassed and saddened by the way the media has been treated during COVID. You are not receiving timely answers and you are getting scripted talking points when you do get an answer.”
I spoke with Carver-Kimm, who told me that she believes in the work of IDPH and the state epidemiologists, but she believes the people she worked with in the governor’s office have an adversarial attitude toward the press. She was often told not to give information to journalists for no apparent reason. “Sometimes we legally can’t give information, but this wasn’t that. It’s just disappointing to see this happen,” she said. “Most journalists are doing their best, and I think IDPH is too. There is no reason not to give answers.”
Amy McCoy, a spokeswoman for IDPH, defended the state’s response, telling the Register, “The Iowa Department of Public Health has gone above and beyond to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information throughout the pandemic.”
In response to this defense, the editor of Sheldon’s N’West Iowa Review, Ty Rushing, tweeted a picture of himself smiling in a kind of bemused grimace of disbelief. A relatable emotional response to Iowa’s pandemic response. Second only to internal screaming.
The governor has often said she has been transparent with the media during the coronavirus crisis, but declaring transparency is different from actually being transparent. I spoke to 12 journalists from TV, print and online outlets across the state. And the response to the governor’s declaration of transparency was a collective, “Yeah right.”
For example: When the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked for emails between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s medical director, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, to find out why she rejected help from the CDC in controlling outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants, the state asked for $10,000. Ryan Foley, a reporter with the Associated Press, stated on Twitter that IDPH asked for $1,690 just to release the number of meatpacking workers who have died from COVID-19. Caroline Cummings, reporter for Iowa News Now, also wrote on Twitter, “IDPH told me it would cost ~$9,800 for email correspondences I sought over a two and a half month period.”
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Charging exorbitant fees for data, which many media organizations can’t pay, isn’t a new tactic and it certainly isn’t a dirty trick that Reynolds invented. But in a pandemic, when our lives and welfare are so closely tied to data points, it’s dangerous.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, news outlets across the state have reported on the complete lack of information from IDPH about the spread of the virus in our state. In May, KCRG reported that Iowa was no longer reporting hospitalization rates. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota provide this information in their daily data reporting and Iowa did too, until May, when the data suddenly disappeared from the state’s COVID-19 tracking website. When KCRG asked if IDPH would continue to publish that data, it received no reply. When I reached out for this column, McCoy simply pointed to all the data they do share. But none of them are hospitalization rates.
In June, KCCI attempted to discover what was being said between the governor and executives at Tyson meatpacking plants on conference calls during the height of the outbreaks in May, when Tyson closed and then reopened its plants, putting thousands of workers at risk. KCCI was able to find out who was on the call, but not what was said. One of the people on the call was Tyson lobbyist Matt Eide, who donated thousands of dollars to Reynolds’ campaign in 2018.
In April, the Des Moines Register tried and failed to get a copy of Reynolds’ coronavirus response plan. IDPH refused to release the plan, declaring it was exempt from Iowa public records laws.
In May, the governor announced that outbreaks would not be disclosed to the public unless the media specifically asked about a business.
Behind the scenes, the lack of transparency is bleaker than a soy field in March. The Gazette has unanswered open records requests. Iowa law mandates that the state respond within 10 days, but that isn’t happening. It’s not just The Gazette — every journalist I spoke to reports the same thing: unanswered emails, unreturned phone calls, lagging records requests.
The data being asked for isn’t anything new. Other states easily and willingly give away this data to journalists and citizens in an effort to help individuals and businesses guide their own response to the pandemic. And now, just months after the president praised Iowa’s pandemic response, we are on a White House list of 18 states considered “red zones” — where the virus is surging and bans on large gatherings need to be put in place. Our cases are rising, people are dying and our governor has no answers, just smiles and bland platitudes that “we’re all in this together.”
Here is a list of all the information journalists have been seeking without receiving clear responses.
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• We don’t know how many tests a day Test Iowa is processing. IDPH reported an average of 3,181 samples per day over the last 3.5 weeks, but we don’t have daily tallies.
• We don’t have individual Test Iowa data. Test Iowa data is reported with testing data around the state, so there is no separate data on how many Test Iowa tests per day are being processed and how their positive and negative testing rates compare to the rest of the state’s testing. Which means, we still don’t know what this $26 million contract bought us. IDPH says they can’t give this information, but Utah, which has the same program, is able to get this information.
• We don’t know the hospitalization rate for Iowans with COVID-19.
• We never saw a full COVID-19 response plan from the governor’s office.
• Beyond Dr. Pedati and deputy state epidemiologist Dr. Ann Garvey, we don’t know which epidemiologist Reynolds consulted with on her pandemic plan. Although, we do know who she didn’t talk to — multiple experts at the University of Iowa who begged her to impose stricter shutdown guidelines.
• We don’t know how many people at meatpacking plants have died from COVID-19.
I submitted an initial list of unanswered questions to McCoy and the governor’s spokesman, Pat Garrett. McCoy replied to some of the questions, and where she provided additional information, I either took the question off the list or noted the details provided. But the questions on the list remain. McCoy promised answers and I hope we get them. When so much is unknown and when unknowns cost Iowans their lives, each question mark means one more person is sick, one more person in the hospital, one more person a data point on our daily tally of COVID-19 deaths.