Iowa county says clinic failed to report 3,000 COVID tests

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa county said Tuesday that a clinic failed to report up to 3,000 negative coronavirus test results, as concerns about inaccuracies in the state’s official pandemic data continued to mount even as schools use it to determine their fall plans.

Webster County Public Health department spokeswoman Kelli Bloomquist said her agency uncovered the clinic's failure to report negative tests last week, and the clinic belatedly submitted the 3,000 results. The county didn’t say why the clinic was not reporting the negative results.

The state system rejected the submissions, but a subsequent review confirmed that many tests had not been entered, Bloomquist said. The new information dramatically reduced the county's 14-day positivity rate, which the state is using to determine whether school districts must return for at least 50% in-person instruction.

The Fort Dodge Community School District announced late Monday that the lower positivity rate would allow school to start on Aug. 25 as initially envisioned. Last week, the district announced a plan to delay the start date given the seemingly high level of community spread following a major outbreak at a prison.

Separately, Humboldt Community School District Superintendent Jim Murray said he learned Tuesday that the county positivity rate of 22.6% — highest in the state — will be lower once unspecified data errors are corrected. He said the district would not seek a waiver to start online.

The Associated Press reported Monday that potentially thousands of positive coronavirus cases have been backdated due to an error in the state system. The problem appears to have artificially lowered many local positivity rates, independent researchers say.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, called the news a “gut punch” and called on the governor to fix the problem and explain what it means for current positivity rates.

“Without clear accountability and answers, Iowans don’t know the risks and facts about COVID-19 in our state. We need Iowa officials to fix this problem and restore our confidence in data,” Axne said.

The governor's office and Iowa Department of Public Health were silent on the problem for a second straight day, including its cause, scope and plans to fix it, despite promises that more information was forthcoming.

Pat Garrett, a spokesman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, initially said information would be released Tuesday but said it would now be released Wednesday.

A department official previously said that a system error skewed the numbers involving people who tested positive after having earlier tested negative. Their new positive results were erroneously recorded as having happened when their original negative results were reported, often in March, April or May.

Rita Gergely, a retired Iowa Department of Public Health official who has been independently tracking the data, said it was a “very unfortunate coding error” that had been made worse by a lack of transparency from the state. She estimates that the error could affect up to 100 cases per day.

Gergely said she felt terrible for her former colleagues.

“It's just really, really really bad luck for it to happen. It is a nightmare for them,” she said. “It's going to affect some counties a lot more than others.”