Dubuque County Board of Health members Sept. 23 unanimously approved a plan to soon start releasing the number of COVID-19 cases in each of the county’s ZIP codes.
Such a detailed look at the location of positive cases long has been called for by the Board of Health, county supervisors, county COVID-19 Incident Command Team and many other citizens and public officials.
Officials argue that the more detailed the information, the more informed decision-makers can be.
“It would definitely be beneficial to know better where these cases are,” said Board of Health Member Diane Pape-Freiburger.
The states of Illinois and Wisconsin long have made data available down to specific ZIP codes. Until recently, however, the Iowa Department of Public Health had denied county public health officials the authority to release such information.
The state informed Dubuque County officials that they could offer such data, with a few caveats of their own and the go-ahead from County Attorney C.J. May III.
According to county Public Health Director Patrice Lambert, May approved of the plan, as long as the incident command team “checked and double-checked” that no individuals were being identified.
The IDPH caveats require that an exact number of positive cases in a ZIP code only can be released if there are no cases or more than five cases, and only if 100 people or more reside in a ZIP code. If there are one to five cases in a ZIP code, that is all officials can release — that there are one to five cases.
According to maps, there are 17 ZIP codes that cover some part of Dubuque County. But 10 of those cross county lines. It is unclear if information on people in those ZIP codes who are not Dubuque County residents will be released.
Regardless, officials will not be able to release the ZIP code information immediately because of the program’s novelty.
“It’s going to take the incident management team a few days at least to figure out the (new state) program,” Lambert said.
Lambert said she plans to release ZIP code-level data regularly but not daily — perhaps every week or two weeks, as the incident management team deems appropriate.
Board of Health Chairman Tom Bechen said the more-specific data still might not identify which communities are having COVID-19 problems.
“If the five-digit ZIP code is all we have, all of Asbury will be lumped in with (some unincorporated parts of the county) and the West End of Dubuque,” he said. “There will be limitations, but this will give us a much more microscopic view of where COVID resides.”