Ousted public health staffer alleges Iowa open records law violations

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s longtime communications director Polly Carver-Kimm filed suit on September 2, claiming she was wrongfully terminated, in violation of the state’s whistleblower law. Stephen Gruber-Miller first reported on the lawsuit for the Des Moines Register. I’ve enclosed below the District Court filing and Carver-Kimm’s parallel claims filed with the State Appeal Board.

Carver-Kimm was the lead media contact for IDPH thirteen years before she was told to resign or be fired in mid-July. Her attorney, Tom Duff, has represented other well-known Iowans who have sued the state on whistleblower claims or alleging wrongful termination, including former criminal investigator Larry Hedlund (who had caught the SUV carrying then Governor Terry Branstad speeding) and former Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven.

The day she was ousted, Carver-Kimm told the Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys she was “embarrassed and saddened by the way the media has been treated during COVID.” She asserted that she was stripped of her duties and eventually removed for being too open with journalists seeking information about the pandemic.

Her court filing and an accompanying news release from Duff’s office are more specific about alleged violations of Iowa’s open records law.

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Iowa's COVID-19 website rewrites history every day

If you visit coronavirus.iowa.gov and view the graphs on the “case counts” page, you might expect to learn how many Iowans were tested for COVID-19 on any given day, and how many of those tests came back positive or negative.

You would be wrong.

Every day, records of hundreds or thousands of old tests disappear from the website. Consequently, it is impossible to reconstruct an accurate picture of Iowa’s testing numbers or positivity rates, either statewide or at a county level.

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State flying blind on Test Iowa's positivity rate

The Iowa Department of Public Health is not tracking the rate of positive, negative, or inconclusive results from COVID-19 tests performed through Test Iowa, Ethan Stein reported for KCRG-TV on August 26.

State officials have declined to segregate data from Test Iowa so that the public could compare those results to COVID-19 tests performed in other settings. But I had assumed the state was collecting that information for its own analysis and quality control.

Not so, KCRG learned.

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Iowa health officials knowingly rolled out flawed COVID-19 positivity data

“Our state coronavirus website now includes the county by county 14-day average positivity rate for our school districts,” Governor Kim Reynolds announced at her August 6 news conference. “Schools and others will be able to check to see where each county stands on this important metric.”

State Medical Director Caitlin Pedati appeared via computer link at the same press conference, answering reporters’ questions about state policies on reopening schools.

Pedati acknowledged on August 19 that the Iowa Department of Public Health’s epidemiology team knew in late July that the positivity rates were inaccurate, because many recent COVID-19 cases were recorded as occurring weeks or months in the past.

An announced “fix” did not appear to solve the backdating problem. On the contrary: newly posted totals on the state’s coronavirus website increased the number of cases recorded for March and April.

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Iowa's COVID-19 deaths on upward trend as total surpasses 1,000

Less than five months after the first Iowan succumbed to the novel coronavirus, the official count of COVID-19 fatalities reached 1,002 on the evening of August 18.

The pandemic has now claimed more Iowa lives than 60 years of foreign wars. Data compiled by the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs shows 868 military service members died in Vietnam, as did two in Panama or Grenada during the 1980s, seven in the Persian Gulf war of the early 1990s, 64 in the Iraq War that began in 2003, and 31 in Afghanistan.

COVID-19 has killed more Iowans in five months than diabetes, the state’s seventh-leading cause of death, does in a typical year.

More Iowans have passed away of coronavirus since March than died in vehicle accidents during 2017, 2018, and 2019 combined.

Publicly available data show the pace of deaths has been accelerating, even before most Iowa students return to K-12 schools or colleges. Those official numbers almost certainly undercount the lives lost.

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