Staff Columnist

What's Iowa's real COVID-19 infection rate?

Pharmacy technician Becky Riedesel (right) hands Becky Duvel of Toddville, Iowa, her prescription in the drive-thru at C
Pharmacy technician Becky Riedesel (right) hands Becky Duvel of Toddville, Iowa, her prescription in the drive-thru at Clark's Pharmacy, 1946 42nd St. NE, in northeast, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. The pharmacy lobby is closed to most clients but the drive-thru is open. While the staff wears masks when working in the pharmacy, they also wear gloves when interacting with customers. Surfaces such as counters, keyboards, telephones as credit card keypads are wiped down on a regular basis. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

When Michael Tallman’s husband tested positive for COVID-19, he tried to get a test too. But tests are hard to get in Iowa, where the virus has killed nearly 600 people since March and where nearly 20,000 cases have been reported. Tallman didn’t have symptoms, so he was told by three different hospitals that Test Iowa was his only option for a test.

Tallman did quarantine, along with his housemates, and began using the Test Iowa website to try and qualify for a test. He did, but he couldn’t find a time slot to get a test. He tried for four days before one opened up.

Josh Hughes, a resident of New Virginia had a similar experience. It took him four days to find an open testing spot with Test Iowa, and it will now be several more days before he gets his results.

Test Iowa is a public-private partnership between the state of Iowa and Nomi Health, a tech start up out of Utah with no health care experience. Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, signed a $26 million, no-bid contract with the company promising that it would expand testing in the state. But it took nearly a month for Test Iowa machines and tests to be validated by the State Hygienics Lab, with reports of faulty equipment, inconclusive tests and test results that never came. Test Iowa was sold to Iowans as a quick fix to track a pandemic, but even as it continues to expand, the reality is Test Iowa is an inadequate system to track a deadly and contagious virus, which is known to spread through people who don’t have symptoms.Iowa lawmakers are calling for an investigation into the program. Rep. Chris Hall from Sioux City told The Gazette, “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.”

Yet, now that the tests are validated and the program is expanding, Reynolds has opened the state back up for business and is seeking to return to “normal life” as the virus continues to spread across the state. Reynolds has effectively declared the pandemic under control. But the real picture of the spread and impact of the virus is being obscured by state officials, who will not confirm outbreaks at businesses unless directly asked by the media, and faulty data.

Ashley, who asked not to use her last name for fear of her husband losing his job, lives in Polk County. Her husband works at a construction site where COVID-19 is rampant. After displaying mild symptoms, her husband was able to get a test through a local clinic. But Ashley and her kids, were told by the same clinic to assume they had the virus and quarantine. She tried for three days to get tested through Test Iowa, before a time slot opened up near her.

“There are so many people like me who have been exposed to the virus, but who can’t get tested. Who are being told to assume they have it and quarantine.” Ashley doesn’t blame health care providers, she knows tests are scarce. “But the reality is, the real infection rate across the state is being hidden.”

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Despite Reynold’s assurances that “widespread contact tracing” was being conducted across the state, none of the people I spoke to had been contacted by the Iowa Department of Public Health for contact tracing. And in Tallman’s case he and his husband have no idea how they were exposed.

“But what about all the others out there?” asks Ashley. “All the other people who just gave up on getting tested, who have been exposed but have no symptoms? What’s the real infection rate?”

All questions, for which there are no good answers.

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

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