State releases heavily redacted COVID-19 document in response to record request

By: - September 11, 2020 3:28 pm

A portion of a heavily redacted document related to the state’s tracking of COVID-19 in Iowa care facilities. (Document courtesy of the Iowa Department of Public Health)

The Iowa Department of Public Health has released one heavily redacted, two-page document in response to a public-records request for information tied to the state’s response to COVID-19.

The department says it is still working on a request for 1,394 email exchanges between the state medical director and the governor’s office.

The redacted document, authored by State Medical Director Caitlin Pedati, appears to be an undated update on the department’s tracking of COVID-19 infections in Iowa nursing homes and assisted living centers.

Although the department discloses on its website the names of Iowa nursing homes with outbreaks involving three or more people, and publishes the number of positive, confirmed cases in each of those homes, the number of confirmed cases in these same facilities is redacted from the document turned over by the department. The department did, however, leave unredacted the number of negative tests in those nursing homes.

The department also redacted what appear to be comments and narrative elements authored by Pedati that accompany the numbers.

No legal justification was given for any of the 32 redactions to the document. Department spokesman Matt Highland, who provided the record, was unable to explain the redactions on Friday but said he would work on getting an answer.

IDPH originally denied access to the entire document, which is one of almost 1,400 sought by the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Three documents consisting of brief orders and strategies for dealing with the pandemic have so far been released in their entirety. Initially, the department denied access to Pedati’s long-term care tracking document, citing a law that allows the department to keep confidential reports made to the department by outside health care providers.

The Capital Dispatch objected, asking that a redacted version, omitting any confidential information, be released. In turning over the redacted version of the document, the department’s public-records office said the document was “owned by Dr. Pedati.”

As for the 1,394 emails between Pedati and the governor’s office, IDPH is charging the news organization $65 an hour to conduct a legal review each of the mails, at an estimated total cost of $1,250.

The Capital Dispatch has agreed to pay for the legal review for those records that are ultimately disclosed in their entirety. The news organization has said it will not pay for legal reviews of records the department chooses to redact or withhold in their entirety.

The Capital Dispatch has also said that for emails provided only in redacted form, the department must provide the legal justification for each redaction.

The Capital Dispatch initially requested a broader assortment of emails and documents but was told that due to the legal reviews, the news organization would have to pay $9,893 for access.

The department’s response to information requests has been the subject of controversy in recent months. In July, the agency fired its longtime spokesperson, Polly Carver-Kimm, who later filed a $5 million wrongful termination lawsuit against the state. Carver-Kimm says she was fired for being too responsive to requests for information; the governor’s office says the lawsuit is without merit.

IDPH spokeswoman Amy McCoy, has said the department has “gone above and beyond to provide up-date and comprehensive information throughout the pandemic.” But in May, Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state would not routinely volunteer information about COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa’s meatpacking plants, and would instead rely on the media to first request the information.

“I trust the media to do their job and continue to ask the questions,” the governor said. “We’re being as transparent as we can in providing Iowans with about as much information as we can … The media will do their part, and we’ll do ours.”


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Clark Kauffman
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.