Iowa infections top 50,000 as questions persist over the state’s COVID-19 data

This is a new image of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the disease that flared in Wuhan, China, in late December and has killed nearly 2,000 people. (Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Lab)

As new questions were raised over the reliability of the state’s COVID-19 data, the number of Iowans infected with the virus topped 50,000.

On Wednesday, another 452 Iowans were reported to be infected with coronavirus, and seven additional Iowans were reported as having died of the virus.

In the past seven days, the number of nursing home outbreaks in Iowa rose from 25 to 28, with 18 additional nursing home workers or residents infected since last Wednesday.

As of Thursday afternoon, there had been 50,761 COVID-19 cases in Iowa — up from 47,141 cases last Thursday. There have been 954 deaths in Iowa since the beginning of the pandemic, with 47 of those occurring in the past week, according to the New York Times’ coronavirus tracker.

Over the past week, there has been an average of 448 new cases per day. The total number of Iowa nursing home residents who have died from COVID-19 is 516, according to IDPH.

The number of Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 increased from 237 last Thursday to 261. During that same seven-day period, the number of infected Iowans admitted to a hospital during the previous 24 hours increased from 28 to 38.

As usual, the New York Times’ data indicates a significantly higher daily count of infections and deaths in Iowa than the data reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

On Thursday afternoon, IDPH was reporting there had been 352 new infections the previous day — exactly 100 fewer than the 452 reported by the Times. Also on Thursday, IDPH was reporting there had been two deaths on Wednesday, rather than the seven reported by the Times.

Over the past six weeks, IDPH has not responded to questions from the Iowa Capital Dispatch about its data collection and reporting. The numbers reported by IDPH not only conflict with data from other sources, some of which is to be expected, but with other elements of IDPH’s own data.

Earlier this week, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported that the 14-day average infection rates the state is reporting are calculated using an unusual methodology. The newspaper also reported that even when using the state’s methodology and data, it can’t replicate the infection rates being reported by IDPH.

The newspaper reported that the state’s formula for calculating averages weighs each day’s positive-test rate equally, despite the fact that there are disparities in the number of tests administered each day.

For example, if 5% — or five tests — out of 100 tests were positive one day, and 15% — or 60 tests — of 400 tests were positive the next day, the two-day positivity rate would be 10% using the state’s methodology. But as the Telegraph Herald reported, 65 confirmed cases out of 500 tests produces a positivity rate of 13%.

The manner in which the averages are calculated is critical because those averages play a significant role in the state’s determination of whether school districts can be granted waivers from requirements for in-person classroom instruction.

Some of the discrepancies between IDPH data and other sources might be due to the way they define infections. The New York Times, for example, counts infections and deaths that have been identified by public health officials as not only confirmed, but “probable,” coronavirus patients. Over time, those numbers have proven to be more accurate than the IDPH numbers that are often adjusted upward several days later.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.