Iowa Capital Dispatch files second complaint over access to COVID-19 data

By: - March 15, 2021 12:51 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 Capital Dispatch has filed its second complaint this month with the Iowa Public Information Board, alleging state officials are withholding additional data related to COVID-19.

In March 5, the Capital Dispatch complained to IPIB that the Iowa Department of Public Health was denying access to a list showing all of the coronavirus outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes since the beginning of the pandemic. On Dec. 9, 2020, the news organization had requested the latest “update” to the list after having received earlier versions of the report on two previous occasions. The updated list was never provided, despite repeated assurances that it was forthcoming.

IDPH has yet to file a response with IPIB on the March 5 complaint.

The Capital Dispatch has now filed another complaint with the board, alleging that on Jan. 27 and Jan. 28 it asked IDPH for information detailing vaccine refusal and acceptance rates in each of the state’s 440 privately run nursing homes. (The state publicly discloses vaccine refusal rates at the Iowa Veterans Home and at the six care facilities run by the Iowa Department of Human Services.)

After a series of email exchanges, a department spokeswoman said the information being sought was not contained in “a report that currently exists,” but said she would work with her team to “pull something in.” The information was never provided.

Over the past year, the Capital Dispatch has filed other complaints with the board over 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.

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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. 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.

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