Iowa Capital Dispatch files public-records complaint over COVID-19 outbreak information

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 Capital Dispatch has filed a formal complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board over access to a state report detailing COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s 440 nursing homes.

On Dec. 9, the news organization asked the Iowa Department of Public Health for an updated list showing all of the coronavirus outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes since the beginning of the pandemic. The department had provided such a list twice before in response to requests from the Capital Dispatch.

When the department failed to provide the updated list, the Capital Dispatch made additional requests on Dec. 21 and 22. On Dec. 23, IDPH said the department would be unable to provide the requested information until the week of Jan. 4.

On Jan. 15, with the list still not provided, the Capital Dispatch made a fifth request for the document and said it would be filing a complaint with the attorney general’s office and the Iowa Public Information Board.

That same day, IDPH said it had misinterpreted the Capital Dispatch’s standing request for future updates to the list to mean the news organization no longer wanted the originally requested document. The department said it would respond with more information “shortly.”

On Jan. 23, the department said it would “have what you’ve requested within a week.”

On Feb. 1, with the list still not provided, the Capital Dispatch made a sixth request for the information and directed it to the governor’s spokesman, Pat Garrett, who told the news organization that IDPH officials would “be in touch.”

There was no further communication on the matter and the list has yet to be provided.

Iowa Capital Dispatch has filed previous complaints with the board to seek access to public records.

In May 2020, the Capital Dispatch filed a formal complaint with IPIB, alleging the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals had refused for months to provide emails and other records related to the agency’s annual performance review by the federal government.

After the complaint was filed, the records were made public. They showed DIA had failed to conduct timely investigations into more than 1,200 complaints against nursing homes. The agency had also failed to conduct timely investigations into complaints about hospitals — in some cases taking four months to investigate matters that should have been handled within five days.

In January 2020, the Capital Dispatch filed a complaint with IPIB about the public-access policies of Iowa Workforce Development, which was requiring individuals who posed a question to the agency or requested records to submit their query in writing and send it through an online portal.

After the Capital Dispatch filed its complaint, IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson sent a letter to all state agencies, reminding them they were obligated to comply with Iowa law. In her letter, she wrote: “Anyone can submit a request for a public record in person, in writing, by telephone or by electronic means such as text or email.”

Iowa Workforce Development subsequently changed its policy.