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A closer look: Iowa's coronavirus website retroactively reports cases as necessary, hides certain data to protect patient privacy

Local 5 is On Your Side to show you how the Iowa Dept. of Public Health reports and modifies data on the state's coronavirus website.


Local 5 reached out to the Iowa Department of Public Health on Wednesday for clarification on the state's coronavirus website after discovering that some data either isn’t shown or it is changed over time.

Here's what Local 5 noticed

Take a look at the graph below. It shows the data of positive tests collected on July 14 and July 21, specifically for March through April. 

The data was pulled straight from coronavirus.iowa.gov around 3:30 p.m. for both days. 

Credit: WOI
This bar graph shows the difference in new cases from July 14 and July 21. Data collected from the IDPH.

Notice how some days are just a few numbers off from the previous week? This may not seem like a big deal at first, but those numbers can add up over time. 

Local 5 also found that specific county data for deaths and recoveries isn’t shown anymore. Take a look at the video below. For positive case analysis, you can hover over any county to find out more about the positive cases, i.e. the specific date for when the case was confirmed by IDPH.

It used to be that way for all dashboards on the website, however now it’s just for positive cases.

Here’s another video that shows what happens when you hover over the state map for the "Outcome Analysis Deaths" dashboard and the "Outcome Analysis Recovered" dashboard. 

Nothing happens. 

This could be concerning to many, because Iowans won’t be able to see spikes in deaths for a specific county for any specific time. Being able to see these spikes can impact how Iowans live day-to-day. 

RELATED: COVID-19 in Iowa by the numbers: Testing, cases and deaths

Here's what Local 5 learned

The Iowa Department of Public Health retroactively reports and changes data when necessary. 

“So there's a lot of different reasons we may need to adjust numbers,” said Amy McCoy with IDPH.

McCoy said that case investigations sometimes discover that the individual tested may have been from a different county or state than what they reported at the time of the test.

“Sometimes [new information] just does come out as you have additional investigation that might go into the cases,” McCoy explained.

McCoy also noted that IDPH will “de-duplicate” some of the data. If a person is tested more than once, the department will delete those extra tests from the website.

“You've got to keep in mind each time we share new data sets and new information we have a team of experts who look at the data that we're sharing,” said McCoy. 

McCoy said the team of experts includes both epidemiologists and lawyers. 

Another example of when data is retroactively reported would be when the site experienced a backlog in reporting data. 

RELATED: Iowa Department of Public Health reports backlog of COVID-19 test results over the weekend

"We did have a data backlog in our system, and so that was also a scenario where, you know, we're receiving more test results than we ever have, far more."

The reason for that is because the state is testing and receiving more results than before, according to McCoy. She said that the data for that would have to be reassigned to the appropriate dates. 

As for the data that doesn’t show up, McCoy said that there’s a reason for that, too: privacy.

“What we don’t want to do is to identify anyone by the information that we are sharing,” McCoy said. 

She said that this changed within the last few weeks.

“And we have very stringent policies on making sure that we don't get to a point where we've shared so many different types of information that someone could narrow it to an individual person,” McCoy said.

"It's done with a team of people who just want to make sure that we're protecting Iowan's information."

McCoy said that the coronavirus website got an A+ from The COVID Tracking Project for their transparency. 

This week, McCoy plans to provide both media and departments with an informational sheet to explain more about the website. Local 5 plans to disclose that information to offer more insight to Iowans on COVID-19 within the state.

Do you have a question about Iowa's COVID-19 testing or how to use the state's online tracker? Text us at 515-457-1026 or email news@weareiowa.com.

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