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Commentary: Transparency issues arise at state public health department

Commentary: Transparency issues arise at state public health department

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Transparency should be the goal of any government agency, especially one that handles public health matters during a global pandemic.

It was something of a rough week on that front for the Iowa Department of Public Health.

This past week, a former department spokeswoman resigned after being asked by the director to resign or be fired, and in her exit she told reporters she believes the department is being guarded and slow to provide information to reporters about the new coronavirus pandemic.

And the department this week said it would need to charge a media outlet almost $10,000 for a records request for emails pertaining to the department’s pandemic response.

Those actions alone do not discredit the department’s expansive public information work during the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the COVID Tracking Project’s grading system for state pandemic public information efforts gives Iowa an A+, one of 17 states to earn the designation.

But these two latest bits of news do give the department something of a public information black eye at an inopportune time: Iowa’s cases are rising again, nearly matching the previous, early-May peak, and deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise.

Polly Carver-Kimm, who had served as the state public health department’s lead spokeswoman for 12 years — through three governors, including two Republicans and a Democrat — told the Des Moines Register she was asked by outgoing department director Gerd Clabagh to resign or be fired.

She told the Register she believes she was asked to leave the department partly because she was too willing to provide pandemic response information to reporters. She also alleged the governor’s staff has required public health media requests to be run through the governor’s office.

“I am embarrassed and saddened by the way the media has been treated during COVID. You are not receiving timely answers and you are getting scripted talking points when you do get an answer,” Carver-Kimm wrote in an email to the Register.

Amy McCoy, who was brought into the department in March to take the lead on pandemic communication with reporters, said Clabagh told Carver-Kimm that the department is planning changes in the structure of communications staff.

McCoy also defended the department’s pandemic communication efforts.

“While we cannot comment on personnel matters, we can share the following: Transparency is critical in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” McCoy said in an emailed statement. “The Iowa Department of Public Health has gone above and beyond to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information throughout the pandemic. These efforts have included participating in regular press briefings, constant communication with media and continuous improvement on how we report data and provide information. We value the role media plays in the state’s efforts to get information to the public, and intend to continue a strong partnership.”

The $10,000 price tag for a records request is not a good look, either. It suggests a high-priced obstacle to media’s attempts to learn how state government is operating — again, especially in a public health department during a global pandemic.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch asked for all written communications between state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati and the federal CDC, top state public health administrators, and the governor’s office during April and May. The public health department estimated fulfilling the request would require 152 hours of labor at a rate of $65.09 per hour, for a total of $9,893.68, the Dispatch reported.

McCoy said the department, like others, uses a mathematical formula to determine the cost of records requests and will work with media outlets to reduce costs by narrowing requests. She said the costs are driven by the amount of work it takes to find the content, have an attorney examine it for any confidential information, to redact any confidential information, and then provide the information to the media outlet.

McCoy said the records requests can require “a tremendous amount of work” and that they sometimes do not serve a purpose for the state’s business.

One could argue, however, that being transparent to the public should be a primary purpose for the state’s business.

— Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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