Iowa nurse practitioner uncovers error on state coronavirus database that lowered case tally

A nurse practitioner in Iowa City, Iowa, uncovered a glitch in the state's coronavirus website that has caused the site to mistakenly report lower numbers of new COVID-19 cases and, by extension, a lower statewide infection rate, resulting in state agencies making decisions based on inaccurate numbers.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Dana Jones, the nurse practitioner who uncovered the problem, was contacted by the Iowa Department of Public Health in an email confirming the validity of her discovery and noting that the agency is working to fix the problem. The inaccurate data, however, was not reported or announced publicly until Jones spoke with the AP.

“It’s one of the worst data errors that could be happening right now,” Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease specialist from Fort Dodge, Iowa, told the AP of the uncovered errors. “We are making these policy calls based on completely flawed numbers and that needs to be acknowledged.”

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“There are a lot of small things like this that are adding up to huge things, where we are massively underestimating the cases in the state,” added Eli Perencevich, an infectious disease researcher with the University of Iowa, in an interview with the AP. “Both of those should be announced and corrected and cleared up immediately.”

An official with the health department told Jones in an email that the agency was "working on logic to handle" the issue.

"A similar situation is happening with the percent positive calculation. We have raised the issue and are actively working on fixing it," added Rob Ramaekers, lead epidemiologist for the Department of Health's surveillance unit, in the email.

In a statement to the AP, a spokesperson for the agency added that the department hoped to have more information on the issue for public release in the future, but declined to comment further.

--This report was updated on Aug. 18 at 5:55 a.m.