State withholds nursing home outbreak data while asking that open-records complaint be dismissed

By: - March 29, 2021 12:32 pm

In response to a formal open-records complaint, the Iowa Department of Public Health is continuing to withhold data regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In response to a formal open-records complaint, the Iowa Department of Public Health is continuing to withhold data regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes.

In December 2020, the Iowa Capital Dispatch requested an updated version of the spreadsheet the department maintains on COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa’s 440 licensed nursing homes.

That spreadsheet, which the department had made public twice before in 2020, includes the names and locations of each care facility where an outbreak has been recorded, as well as the number of infections in each facility, and the dates of each outbreak. (Some facilities have had three or more outbreaks over the course of the pandemic.)

The department never provided the requested December update, nor did it provide any of the agency’s subsequent updates, which were the focus of a standing request filed by the Capital Dispatch in January.

At various times, IDPH officials indicated the spreadsheet was being worked on and would soon be turned over. In March, the Capital Dispatch filed a formal complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, alleging IDPH was in violation of the Iowa Open Records Law.

IDPH: We don’t track vaccine refusals

In January, the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked IDPH for information detailing the vaccine refusal and acceptance rates among workers in each of the state’s 440 privately run nursing homes. After a series of email exchanges, a department spokeswoman said the information 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.

After the Capital Dispatch filed a complaint with the iowa Public Information Board, IDPH Director Kelly Garcia told the Capital Dispatch the agency doesn’t collect information on vaccine refusal rates in nursing homes. That same day, however, Gov. Kim Reynolds publicly announced the overall vaccine-acceptance rate among Iowa’s nursing home workers was 60%.

A spokesman for the governor, Pat Garrett, later said the governor’s information came from someone affiliated with a partnership of Iowa’s long-term care providers and pharmacies, adding that it had been communicated by phone and not put in writing. He didn’t respond when asked precisely who had provided the data, and who at the state had received it.

Last week, Assistant Attorney General Heather Adams sent to IPIB what she called “the requested information,” and asked that IPIB close the complaint against the IDPH.

The document Adams sent to IPIB does not include several elements of data provided in previous versions of the spreadsheet. For example, IDPH appears to have redacted the county where each care facility is located, as well as the date each outbreak was first recognized, and the date each outbreak was considered resolved.

In a letter IPIB, Adams said the delay in responding to the Capital Dispatch’s request was due to three factors: “Confusion” over what the news organization was seeking; IDPH “transitioning its data reporting systems,” which meant that it couldn’t access the spreadsheet even for its own purposes; and the fact that the data “required some additional work to pull and validate.”

The Capital Dispatch has informed IPIB that its complaint against the agency still stands, arguing that the spreadsheet the attorney general’s office gave to IPIB isn’t what was requested of IDPH and so the agency remains in violation of the Iowa Open Records Law.

“Unless IDPH is penalized for its actions, this pattern of routinely ignoring public-records requests will continue to repeat itself, and IPIB will continue to field more complaints about the agency ignoring statutory deadlines,” the Capital Dispatch told IPIB. “This is precisely the sort of situation IPIB was created to address.”

According to IDPH, a total of 2,234 residents of Iowa nursing homes have died of coronavirus during the pandemic. Currently, there are two active outbreaks in Iowa care facilities, with a total of 12 infections.

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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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