Dana Jones knew there was a problem the Iowa’s COVID-19 data in May. Since the first reported cases of COVID-19 in March, Jones, a nurse practitioner who lives in Iowa City, had been keeping careful records in her journal of the daily positivity numbers.
She was keeping a record in her daily journal, not just of the numbers, but of her days at the clinic, what her patients were saying, what her kids ages 5, 11 and 16 were thinking and saying about the pandemic, what groceries she could no longer find in the stores.
The COVID-19 numbers aren’t just data and metrics for Jones. They are the people she sees and works with, they are her children and parents.
Nothing is adding up
She began by handwriting her notes usually in the morning before work, or in the evening right after. She works full-time as an essential worker and is the mother of three. Her days are busy. Keeping track of the numbers helped her feel like she had a handle on the pandemic tearing through America, killing nearly 200,000 so far.
On May 26, she decided to download the COVID-19 data from Iowa’s Department of Health website. The next day, she went to add in the new numbers and saw the problem: Positive case numbers were being added to earlier days and not reported in the current days’ totals.
The next day, it happened again. And again. So she did what many frustrated Americans do, she tweeted. On May 29, she tweeted, “Fun fact: on March 20th I was told there were 49 cases of COVID-19 in Iowa on the @IAPublicHealth site. Today that total on that date is 80. Yesterday that total was 79. The day before that it was 78 ... WHAT GIVES?”
The next day it happened again. This wasn’t an accident, this was how the system was designed.
Shouting into the void
On May 30, Jones tweeted at the news site Iowa Starting Line, “@IAStartingLine did you know that the total daily cases you were reporting in March are now being reported by @IAPublicHealth as double that number now?”
Meanwhile, Gov. Kim Reynolds was reopening the state using Iowa’s low positivity numbers as justification for lifting bans on gatherings of 10 or more people, bars, restaurants, water parks.
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Jones was telling anyone who would listen about the numbers shell game that the state was playing with COVID-19 tests, but she was shouting into a void.
Reynolds was opening the state. Nothing would stop her, not even the truth.
Others in the media had noticed the data problems, but were not getting their questions answered by IDPH or the governor’s office. Emails were going unreturned and calls unanswered. Working in journalism in small newspapers and TV stations in 2020 feels like trying to report from the deck of the Titanic — there is too much going on and your world is sinking. But reporters were asking for answers. Sara Konrad Baranowski, editor for the Times Citizen in Iowa Falls, was relentless in pushing for answers. Over the course of 20 days, she sent 10 emails (the governor’s office prefers emails and refers phone calls from the press to email), but the state didn’t reply.
Meanwhile, Reynolds was touting the transparency of her administration and forcing schools in-person in the fall.
So, Jones watched the cases back date for months. Finally, it was August, and Jones sent an email through the IDPH portal asking what was happening. She got a response. On Aug 14. Rob Ramaekers, the lead epidemiologist for the department’s Surveillance Unit, wrote back to Jones noting that they were aware of the problem and working to fix it. On Aug. 17, the Iowa news site Bleeding Heartland, the AP and the Times Citizen reported on the “glitch.”
The state knew
On Aug. 19, in an interview with The Gazette, state epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati said that IDPH had known about the data problem since July but didn’t fix it. In fact, the problem still isn’t fixed.
Pedati tried to downplay the severity of the issue, but the reality remains: While the governor was pushing to send kids and teachers back to school, the state was actively hiding positive tests and refusing to answer questions from the press about it.
And it wasn’t just the “glitch.” At a news conference on Aug. 27, Reynolds admitted that antigen tests, which are a different type of COVID-19 tests, were not being added to the positive case totals. The tests were added to the overall tests performed, but if they came back positive, were not added to the states positive totals. That’s changing, but the fact that for months Iowans were misled about the reality of the virus in the state, that’s a truth the state can’t shuffle around on an Excel sheet.
On Aug. 28, the antigen tests were added to Iowa’s numbers and our infection rate shot off higher than an illegal firework in a Des Moines suburb. If Iowa were a country, we’d have the third highest rate of infection in the world.
It’s not numbers, it’s people
Jones told me in an interview that the way the data has been recorded is also constantly changing, making it hard for her and other data watchers to get an accurate picture of the spread of the virus in Iowa.
“We were told that there was one picture of the virus in the state, when the reality was something else,” said Jones, who noted that even as case counts rise, the reality of the COVID-19 infection spread in the state is worse than we know and worse than our state is telling us.
“Even now,” said Jones, “numbers still aren’t adding up.”
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“The thing is, numbers are a lagging indicator,” explains Jones. So whatever we see now, that was the picture from the past. Acting on those numbers now, is too late.
But Jones is quick to remind me again, this is more than just numbers, “Behind every data point is a person, a human life.” That’s what is at stake.
Just three days after I spoke with Jones, Iowa became number one in the United States for COVID-19 cases per capita. And Reynolds moved to shut down bars in only six counties. But schools are opening in person and the reality is worse than we know.