Staff Editorial

Show us the real virus numbers, Gov. Reynolds

An irresponsible pattern as Iowa sets COVID-19 records: Secrets, omissions and 'glitches'

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Sept.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Incredibly, eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s data still lacks credibility.

Last week, The Gazette’s Erin Jordan reported that the state’s calculations for test positivity rates don’t add up. Apparently state officials are using a formula that includes numbers not available to the public, leading somehow to test positivity rates lower than those calculated with public data.

Test positivity rates are important variables shaping public health policy. The higher the rates, the greater the community spread of the virus. For example, public schools can petition the state for permission to go to full online learning if the local test positivity rate tops 15 percent.

Biostatisticians say the state’s explanation for its calculations, that it is not counting multiple tests taken by an individual but only one final test, doesn’t make sense.

This week, KCRG reported that the state is barring local public health departments from releasing data on capacity levels at local hospitals, data that would clearly illustrate the pandemic’s impact on the health care system in cities and communities. The state only reports hospital capacity on a statewide and regional basis.

This is part of an irresponsible pattern.

In the spring, we learned that the state wouldn’t report outbreaks at meatpacking plants unless asked directly for data by journalists. And when the state did report plant outbreaks, we learned later that officials underreported case counts.

In the summer, we learned the state was backdating positive COVID-19 test results to dates in the spring when an infected individual was first tested. The result was a skewed picture of rising caseloads and rising positivity rates. The state blamed a “glitch” in its aging computer system.

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This fall, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered public schools to return to in-person instruction in core subject areas. But the state is not reporting school outbreaks and doesn’t require districts to report the data.

In each instance, the inescapable conclusion is the Reynolds administration, through secrecy, omission or “glitch,” sought to downplay the severity of the COVD-19 pandemic in Iowa. As the administration reopened the state, mandated a return to class and resisted broader mitigation measures, officials didn’t want worsening data to get in the way.

To get the real picture, Iowans have turned to journalists and citizen number-crunchers working around considerable barriers to get the real story.

Iowans deserve to fully know the real numbers shaping life and death policy decisions. Their government has an obligation to provide that information. The Reynolds team must change course, release the data and repair its tattered credibility.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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