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COVID-19 forecast for Iowa could still be weeks away

By RYAN J. FOLEY

Associated Press

IOWA CITY — A plan to create an Iowa-specific model to forecast the coronavirus pandemic could still take weeks to complete and any finished product may not ultimately guide the state’s decision-making, a top health official said Monday.

Iowa Department of Public Health deputy director Sarah Reisetter said her agency has yet to share its data on COVID-19 patients with the university hired to create a model, but planned to do so soon.

A contract first reported Monday by The Associated Press calls for the University of Iowa College of Public Health to create a model within two weeks of receiving the state’s data, or on another mutually agreed upon schedule. The contract wasn’t finalized until April 7, a month after Iowa’s first coronavirus cases were confirmed.

Reisetter said her agency needed to provide a “sufficient baseline of data” for any model to be informative. She noted previously that making projections could be difficult given the limited amount of coronavirus testing in Iowa to date.

Reisetter said that having forecasts may be helpful as the pandemic continues. But she said the state intends to keep making decisions about mitigation strategies “based on what’s actually happening here,” looking at existing infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

The contract calls for a model that will predict the number, severity and timing of future infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The model would be modified to predict how shifts in strategies, such as a stay-at-home order, might change public health outcomes.

The contract says the model is intended for use by the department “internally with other state agencies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.” It bars the university from publishing any findings before April 2021 unless approved by the state epidemiologist.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she will keep Iowa residents informed and that any projections would be released at some point. But she noted that some national models have fluctuated wildly and that they are all based on assumptions that can be flawed.

The number of cases is expected to peak later this month, and it’s unclear whether any Iowa-specific model will be completed before then.

Instead of basing decisions on estimates of how the virus might spread, Iowa officials have responded to the outbreak largely by tracking outcomes. They also track data showing hospitals currently have enough beds and ventilators to treat patients.

The governor has argued the data support her refusal to issue a stay-at-home order since she closed schools and some businesses nearly a month ago. Critics say Iowa’s metrics are arbitrary and backward-looking.

On Monday, Iowa reported a total of 1,710 infections tied to the pandemic, with a majority of the 43 deaths coming from outbreaks at nursing homes. A second meat processing plant, Iowa Premium in Tama, was temporarily idled after several workers tested positive.

Reynolds said the university has been a “great partner” during the pandemic and that talks about modeling began before the contract was signed.

The contract’s first priority was to have college experts examine existing models, such as a widely-cited one from the University of Washington. An analysis of those models was due in recent days.

The University of Washington model forecasts that Iowa will have just enough intensive care beds to treat patients, that its peak will come April 30 and that 743 residents will die by August. Iowa officials have criticized that model, which has changed drastically at times, for not fully crediting the mitigation strategies the governor has ordered.

University of Iowa College of Public Health spokesman Daniel McMillan said in an email last week that the project was just getting underway and scientists were busy “given the urgency of the work they’re doing.” The college won’t be paid under the contract but will get the department’s data for free.