Staff Columnist

Meet the rogue analyst fact-checking Iowa's pandemic math

Iowa coronavirus map as of April 15, 2020
Iowa coronavirus map as of April 15, 2020

As case counts and deaths from COVID-19 rise and the state reopens, Iowans are desperate for guidance. Iowa’s governor has stopped giving updates on death totals in her daily news conferences and the data on the state’s website is obscure and constantly in flux. At first, the state analyzed COVID-19 cases by region, with a scoring system. But that was tossed aside when one of the regions reached the highest point of the scoring system. County level data disappeared, then it reappeared. First, rates of infection were reported every 24 hours, now the state updates that in real time, which obscures the number of daily cases.

The site does not provide demographic data by county for cases, recoveries and deaths. The state provides those demographic details only in statewide percentages — not raw numbers.

Additionally, epidemiologists at the University of Iowa were asked for a model to predict Iowa’s peak. That model was tossed aside by the governor as based on “assumptions.” What she bases her decisions on are “metrics and data.”

Metrics and data. Metrics and data. Words said so often and defined so rarely that they’ve lost their meaning. And yet it’s these elusive metrics and data upon which Iowa has built its pandemic response.

“I don’t know what to do,” my friend who owns a restaurant texts me the week Reynolds announces restaurants can open. “Where is the guidance?”

The county advises one thing. The state advises another. The restaurant association still another.

“I trust Iowans to do the right thing,” Reynolds says over and over. But what that right thing is, is anyone’s guess.

This vacuum of leadership is being filled by experts on Twitter, like Dr. Eli Perencevich, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa who is outspoken in his criticisms of the state’s reopening. Dr. Rossana Rosa, who has been clarifying what this shifting sand of “metrics and data” actually mean. And then there is Sara Anne Willette, who every day during the pandemic has been compiling the elusive metrics and data. Willette is a self-described “INTJ” — that’s Myers-Briggs personality shorthand for the “architect,” someone who is analytical and judgmental. Willette also has common variable immunodeficiency, an antibody deficiency that makes it so her body can’t protect her from disease. From the moment coronavirus came to America, Willette was paying attention.

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“I’ve been quarantining my whole life,” she said in an interview. “If I want to live, I have to pay attention.”

Another thing she does to stay safe is to compile data. Willette has a knack for a spreadsheet. She helps her husband Dr. Auriel Willette with his work as a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

Gathering and analyzing data helps her make sense of an incomprehensible and dangerous world. She began posting her daily analysis, charts and totals on a separate Facebook page she maintained for political posts. She has a lot of family members with a lot of political opinions and she doesn’t want to get into fights. But as the pandemic raged through the state, the problem became bigger than politics.

“I wanted my family to see,” she said. “I needed them to know the dangers even if they blocked me.”

Willette moved her analysis to her personal page where she’s gathered a following of politicians, store owners and everyday Iowans who want to assess the risk. “People and even politicians are reaching out to me asking specific questions about the data and I do my best to answer them,” she said.

“When you are being gas lit about reality and safety on a national and state level, you have to do something.”

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Sara Anne Willette

Two people on Facebook messaged me to make sure I saw what Willette was doing.

State Auditor Rob Sand even reached out to Willette and asked her to send him her daily analysis.

Sand said that he keeps in touch with Willette because he wants to see and understand what data and metrics Iowans actually have access to during the pandemic, especially given the variability of which data is available and easy to understand.

While she’s happy to fill the role, Willette doesn’t think this should be her job. “People are only reaching out to me because there is no leadership,” she said. “It’s enraging.”

Another thing that bothers Willette is the way the data fluctuates. “Take, for example, Delaware County bothers me,” she says. “They’ve had multiple removals and their number has fluctuated a bunch. They had one day where five cases were pulled, and that cut their total in half in one day. And then they added a bunch of cases and then they deleted another case and then they added more cases.”

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What are these disappearing cases? To be clear, Willette, doesn’t suspect a conspiracy, just a lack of transparency.

Especially on a county by county level. With Black Hawk County she’s noticed a significant lag time in reporting on a state level. The county reports one number, the state another, It’s the same with Woodbury County, too.

Also she notes, “the Iowa Department of Public Health is not reliably counting ‘County Pending’ positives in their daily positives. It appears that these pending positives are silently rolled into the sum total on the day following when they are reported by IDPH. They do not always seem to be assigned a county when subsumed into the total.”

Willette trails off in her explanation. It’s a lot of specific data and she spends maybe eight to nine hours on her analysis each day, looking at county level data, state-reported data, inputting it into her public spreadsheet and then listening to the daily news conference. She drinks a strawberry margarita while listening to the governor. “If I have do hear this every day, I do need a drink,” she said.

In response to questions about data inconsistencies, Reynolds has said the site is evolving and working on the lag time.

But Willette is not alone. There are many Iowans, who have become a rogue legion of self-created data analysts out of necessity rather than desire. Reynolds even referred to this Google Docs army as “you people who have your own spreadsheets” in a news conference.

Willette didn’t like that. She thought it felt condescending. She analyzes the data and metrics to keep her wits about her. To keep everything clear. “When you are being gaslit about reality and safety on a national and state level,” said Willette, “you have to do something.”

This isn’t a game. This isn’t a scoreboard. Willette lives a life at risk. She knows the tally. She knows what it means when a life is lost. She knows the next life could be her own if she isn’t careful.

And so she counts and counts, hoping one day it will all add up.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; (319) 450-0547

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