University of Iowa explains why negative case count, positivity rate aren’t included in campus COVID dashboard

Published: Sep. 20, 2020 at 11:49 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - Three days a week, the University of Iowa updates the numbers of positive self-reported COVID tests among its students and employees on its online coronavirus dashboard.

In recent updates — released every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — the university has been noting the number of self-reported positive tests among students has been decreasing, from 326 tests three weeks ago on Aug. 31 to 43 cases in the most recent update on Friday, Sept. 18.

But some COVID data points that other universities release publicly, like the campus positivity rate and number of negative tests, aren’t provided by the University of Iowa.

Dr. Dan Fick, the campus health officer, says that’s because the university doesn’t have that information.

“As a healthcare provider, there’s no requirement to notify the state of negative tests, so the state actually would not provide that information to the county, and the county would not provide that information to us as the university,” Fick said.

The University of Iowa earned a “B” grade for its COVID information availability and presentation from the website “We Rate Covid Dashboards,” a website created by Yale doctors that rates more than 100 American colleges' and universities' dashboards.

Iowa’s website earned credit for being easy to read and for separating student data from employee data.

“On college campuses where we know that adolescents, young adults are at very high risk for spreading this, really in literal epidemic proportions, testing is our single biggest weapon that we have to stamp this down,” said Dr. Howard Forman, one of the people behind the dashboard.

The University of Iowa received a point on this scale for reporting numbers daily, though it only does so three days a week.

It also lost a point for not reporting the overall number of students tested.

Iowa’s two other public universities, Northern Iowa and Iowa State, do provide that information, with both reporting their updates once a week, including numbers of negative tests.

In Iowa State’s case, Fick said that discrepancy in data availability is a result of differences in the universities' relationships with their home county’s public health department. While Johnson County maintains the authority to contact trace its cases, according to Fick, Story County has delegated that authority to Iowa State.

“They have the ability to go contact known contacts and interact with the positive cases, which we don’t have that ability,” Fick said. “And so because of that, Iowa State runs all of the testing in-house, and they are able to keep track of the total number of students tested in addition to the positives, where we only know the positive numbers.”

When asked if the University of Iowa desired Johnson County Public Health to give it the ability to contact trace, Fick called Johnson County “a great partner.”

“They’re able to ramp up dramatically the number of people able to contact trace, and it allows us to provide activities and functions other than the contact tracing,” he said. “So at this point, I think we’re very fortunate. In fact, I think we’re one of the few universities that have this extra help available to keep the numbers and to help mitigate the virus.”

Fick said while some University of Iowa students are tested for COVID-19 through the student health center, most are tested through their own healthcare providers, Test Iowa, or University of Iowa Healthcare.

“We’re in a unique situation — we’re the students, we’re the employer, and we’re the healthcare providers all at the same time,” he said.

Because of that, UIHC can’t shortcut the system by directly providing student testing information to the university.

“Because we provide the tests, as a healthcare provider, we cannot turn around and report that to the main campus related to the students. That would be a HIPAA violation,” Fick said.

Fick also said that knowing the number of negative tests, and therefore the positivity rate, wouldn’t change the university’s mitigation steps “to a significant degree,” saying they’re focusing on known positive cases “so that we can make arrangements and do the necessary things to keep their close contacts safe.”

He added data from Johnson County backs up the university’s belief that the recent decrease in student positive cases is a true decrease, not just a result of students not getting tested.

“If Johnson County had a dramatic uptick in new cases, and we saw our student numbers going down, that would lead us to some concern,” Fick said. “But because we follow exactly along with the rest of Johnson County, all populations have seen a dramatic decrease in the virus in the last several weeks, so our student numbers basically are mirroring what we’re seeing in the community and on campus.”

While the University of Iowa’s COVID dashboard gives the number of self-reported results, the university said that count is accurate.

Johnson County Public Health reports positive cases to the university, which checks to see if those students and staff have self-reported.

If they haven’t, the university said it asks them to fill out a self-reporting form, which it says, in turn, helps Johnson County with its contact tracing.

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.

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