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Iowa Extended Contact Contract As Cases Plummeted

In Ireland, Irish Army cadets assist with the contact tracing work in Dublin.
Paul Faith
AFP via Getty Images
Contact tracing involves a painstaking process of identifying and reaching out to all of a COVID-19 patient's recent contacts.

As virus cases plummeted, Iowa quietly extended a $3.9 million contact tracing contract with a company owned by a major Republican Party donor and supporter of Gov. Kim Reynolds, according to documents released Friday.

After a one-day emergency bidding process in November, the Iowa Department of Public Health hired MCI, an Iowa City telemarketing firm, to trace the contacts of residents infected with COVID-19. The award of the two-month, $2.3 million contract came during a surge in cases that filled up hospitals with patients and after months of complaints from counties about a shortage of contact tracing workers.

Four days before MCI’s contract was to expire Jan. 31, Iowa’s state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati signed a three-month contract extension with the company worth nearly $1.6 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law.

MCI is owned by Anthony Marlowe, who was an Iowa delegate to the Republican National Convention last year and has emerged as a top donor for Republican Party groups and candidates in recent years. His company performed extensive telemarketing and data work for Donald Trump’s two presidential campaigns and also provided services for Reynolds’ political campaign.

Marlowe donated $10,000 to Reynolds’ campaign in October. She returned the contribution in November, one day after MCI won the contact tracing contract. Marlowe has donated more than $140,000 to GOP groups and candidates since 2017, including donations to Iowa’s Republican members of Congress, state lawmakers and Trump’s campaigns.

The public health department said in November that MCI was the highest scoring out of 14 bidders and that its political connections played no role in it getting the contract. The company had been pitching its services to the state since the beginning of the pandemic.

The contract extension came as cases were rapidly declining in Iowa. By Jan. 27, new cases had plummeted to about 1,000 per day from a high of 4,700 in mid-November, when the state decided to hire an outside contact tracing vendor for the first time. New daily cases have continued to drop since then, to a seven-day rolling average of 460 on Friday.

The company’s contract called for it to supply up to 200 contact tracers and case investigators at a cost of $254,400 per week, but its workload could be reduced at the state’s direction. The $1.58 million contract amendment would pay the company at a rate of nearly 100 full-time employees from February through April.

For weeks, Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand did not respond to multiple AP inquiries about whether MCI’s contract had been extended. She apologized Friday, saying she mistakenly thought she had responded, but she offered no immediate rationale for the contract extension.

MCI was also one of 15 companies that last month submitted proposals to run a call center to help residents get information about the availability of vaccines. After seeking bids on a one-day emergency basis, the department reversed course and said it would not hire any outside vendors for the work.

While his company has profited by providing pandemic-related services, Marlowe has supported an Iowa lawmaker who has played down the coronavirus threat. He funded $1,300 worth of advertising calls and texts to support last fall’s reelection of State Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, who said last summer that the virus “isn’t even killing anybody,” disclosure records show.

More than 5,630 residents in Iowa have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, and the death rate as of Friday, March 12 is about 12 per day.