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Unreleased COVID data from state shows higher testing numbers, lower positivity rate

Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 11:57 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Data that isn’t available to the public regarding COVID testing in Iowa shows the state is testing at a much higher volume than is apparent, according to Paul Trombino, Gov. Kim Reynolds' chief operating officer and the interim director of the Department of Administrative Services.

“It’s probably 70,000 to 80,000 [tests] a week,” Trombino said. “So that’s coming in from all labs, sites, antigen tests, PCR tests. Our volume has been pretty high.”

Data collected each day from the state’s COVID dashboard by KCRG-TV9 shows that number is much lower, with the total number of tests logged in the week from Oct. 21 to Oct. 27 at 38,244 tests.

Reynolds, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state medical director and epidemiologist, and other members of the governor’s team have access to data that isn’t publicly available and are able to use it to make decisions that affect just about every Iowan. Reynolds alluded to those statistics differing from what is shown on the COVID dashboard website after being asked about the recent increase in positive cases of the disease during an interview with KCRG-TV9 on Tuesday.

“We have a lot of individuals that are taking multiple tests, and so we’re taking a look at how we can roll that out, so individuals — we have one individual that’s done 74 tests, so you literally can take multiple tests and that can account — it doesn’t come in on that day, but when we roll out the numbers, that’s over several a day. So we do have a lot of people testing. You’re going to continue to see that increasing," Reynolds said.

The state’s COVID numbers are used to determine if schools can switch to virtual learning, if people can visit their loved ones in nursing homes, and whether businesses, like bars, can stay open, among other calculations.

“We have dozens and dozens of analysis pages. I work with Dr. Pedati and the epi team, and we create for them, and the governor has access to those,” Trombino said. “So she has direct access to the system. She has a dashboard that we’ve created for her, so she has a whole series of things that she — because I always want to make sure that — it’s important that she has a good sense of what’s happening so that she can ask questions and ask questions of Dr. Pedati and get explanations as things change around the state.”

The public doesn’t have access to this more complete data with the number of tests administered and the results of all those tests because right now, about 40% of people getting COVID tests have been tested before, according to Trombino.

But that’s not how the state publicly reports its COVID data, so Iowans wouldn’t know that percentage is so high.

Iowa reports its COVID numbers on an individual level, not on a test level, meaning each Iowan can only show up in the data once, no matter how many times they’ve been tested.

For example, if someone has taken 30 tests, they are only reflected in the state’s “Individuals Tested” count once, not 30 times, and the state does not publicly release the numbers of tests administered and processed overall. If that same person tests negative all 30 times, it’s the same result: They count toward just one, not 30, of the overall “Individuals Negative” number.

Only a person’s most recent test is logged, and the previous ones are moved out of the data set entirely, according to Trombino. For example, if someone is tested on the first of every month and repeatedly tests negative, they account for only one in the count of “Individuals Negative.” Their most recent test, on Oct. 1, would be included in the state’s bar graph in the bar for Oct. 1, but if they test negative again on Nov. 1, their negative would be counted on that date, and the “Individuals Negative” count for Oct. 1 would then be one fewer.

“If we count them all multiple times, it changes the denominator of the state,” Trombino said. “The number that we use is 3,156,145 individuals in the state. If I start counting the same person and the same test multiple times, I’m changing the denominator, and so that’s why we, as we like to say, we deduplify, to make sure that it’s right to that individual, and then there are case standards that define how and when you count the test.”

What the public is not seeing are those 40% of tests that are duplicates, which makes it looks like the state is administering fewer tests than it actually is.

As the world has learned over the course of the last several months, adequate testing is critical in slowing down the coronavirus. But the state of Iowa isn’t reporting every single test result publicly because of a decision made earlier on in the pandemic.

Trombino said every state epidemiologist worked together, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists to create uniform reporting standards. He admitted this standard of reporting individuals and not test isn’t perfect but says it allows researchers to analyze how many cases there are per 100,000 people.

“That’s the big thing: If we don’t show it as individuals, you can’t do the [cases] per 100,000,” Trombino said. “You can’t do the straight-up comparison county to county, city to city, state to state. You have to be able to do that count. If you show all tests, all negatives, all positives, you can’t do the calculation.”

The White House Coronavirus Task Force’s most recent report, dated Oct. 25 and obtained by ABC News, found that Iowa ranks 10th when it comes to new cases out of 100,000 people.

More states are shifting to telling the public about all tests, but there is still a lot of variation in the US because the federal government hasn’t mandated a particular reporting style across the board.

This week, Florida stopped reporting data the way Iowa is, by not counting retests, and the change, expectedly, dropped the positivity rate. That move also increased the number of tests reported by 3.7 million, according to The Covid Tracking Project.

But thousands of tests are still happening in Iowa, unbeknownst to the public, and if the state did count each specimen, including repeats, Trombino said Iowa’s positivity rate would certainly be lower.

TV9 asked Gov. Reynolds' office if Iowans would be able to see all testing results, as the state is collecting this data without making it publicly available, and the state said it was working on that.

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