If you can’t control the disease, bury the details.
That seems to be the latest tactic from President Trump, as his administration has cut out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from the pandemic reporting process and stripped the data from its website.
That’s a chilling situation as COVID-19 cases set new records last week, surpassing 75,000 cases in a single day. Deaths are mounting and hospitals in states like Georgia are overwhelmed.
It also seems to be the path Gov. Kim Reynolds has chosen, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in Iowa. She has been talking for nearly two weeks about taking additional mitigation efforts to slow community spread, such as restricting capacity in bars. But the only action she’s taken has been to pressure school districts into holding at least 50% of classes in person except with state approval.
The governor has said repeatedly that her office intends to be transparent as possible about the coronavirus. The reality has been more like Venetian blinds than a window. Iowans have had to sift through incomplete and ever-shifting data, trying to piece together a sense of how risky it may be to venture outside their doors.
In the past week, however, Reynolds’ administration has slammed the blinds closed on details about a key public health decision. And in a move reminiscent of Trump’s administration, her office has now rerouted public health information through the governor’s office instead of the agency in charge of public health. It appears Reynolds is getting ready to board up the window.
Last week, the Department of Public Health told Iowa Capital Dispatch it would have to pay nearly $10,000 for access to emails between the chief state epidemiologist, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, and the federal government and members of the governor’s staff. That confiscatory price is based on the cost for a state lawyer to basically go through and redact information from public records.
Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman asked for the emails because the department refused to answer a simple question about why Pedati in April refused an offer from U.S. Centers for Disease Control in managing virus outbreaks at meatpacking plants.
Pedati confirmed Friday that she never accepted CDC help for the packing plant outbreaks, saying only that the assistance wasn’t needed. That’s frustrating.
Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans had another word for it: disturbing.
“This is further evidence that the ability to charge for retrieving public records seems to be a way for officials to price these beyond the reach of Iowans,” said Evans told Iowa Capital Dispatch. “That’s quite disturbing, because the people of this state deserve to know more about the decisions state health officials were making, or not making, in the midst of the COVID crisis.”
Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Public Health forced out its long-time spokesperson, Polly Carver-Kimm, after first sidelining her from coronavirus communications duties. She told the Des Moines Register she thinks she was seen as too aggressive in sharing information with the media.
Kimm later told Radio Iowa the pandemic had become a “political football.”
“All the people who work at IDPH have the best interests of the health of Iowans in mind. This is a situation that it’s no surprise to anyone that’s become a political football, too, and so all of the media is vett(ed) by the governor’s office,” Carver-Kimm told Radio Iowa.
The governor’s response when asked about Carver-Kimm’s ouster: “Who, me?”
“I don’t micromanage our agencies. I’m not involved in personnel decisions. And so … I was not involved in that decision whatsoever,” Reynolds said during her news conference on Friday.
And yet all public information from the Iowa Department of Public Health is now going through the governor’s office. And she’s not involved in micromanaging the agency? I really hope, for the sake of Iowans, that this is not an example of how her office is going to handle the vital public health information Iowans need during this pandemic.
The mitigation measures Reynolds put in place in March and April were working. New cases began to decline, even as testing ramped up. But the situation wasn’t working for the economy and Reynolds caved to pressure to reopen too quickly. She says an increase in cases was “inevitable,” but she’s rejected proposals to require face coverings in public, which could make a significant difference in slowing virus spread without closing a single business.
Our state is already on a national list of 18 “red zone” states for the virus, and other states are barring Iowans from traveling there unless they quarantine for two weeks.
If Iowans allow elected officials to bury the facts, even more of us are going to end up burying loved ones.