As Iowans learn to live with the COVID-19 pandemic, data and opinions have come at them from all directions. One of the leading voices in Iowa (leading because the Iowa press made it so) is Sara Anne Willette, otherwise known on Twitter as @amethystarlight. She dubs herself the “chief data officer” of iowacovid19tracker.org, a website devoted to all sorts of pandemic data:

Her Twitter feed is a constant plea for Iowans to wear masks and take vaccines, backed up by frequent data visualizations she has created. She pushes the same message over and over: everything that Republicans have done in response to the pandemic is wrong, that the refusal to lock down the economy and make people wear masks everywhere at all times is causing needless suffering and death.

She is very unhappy with sporting events coming back:

Or life returning to normal:

And concern being shown by Republican elected leaders for other current problems:

Her Twitter feed clearly has an impact on Iowa Democrats and allies in the media. Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman did a story, which was picked up by Iowa Public Radio, with the title “Nursing Home Outbreaks Increase, Largely In Iowa’s Trump-voting Counties.”   He cites left-wing activist Laura Belin, citing Sara Anne Willette, for stats on nursing home outbreaks. Kauffman’s colleague Linh Ta called Willette a “data scientist” in another article.

Iowa Capital Dispatch reporters were not the only ones to cite Willette authoritatively. Lyz Lenz did an entire profile on her, which included this gem: “State Auditor Rob Sand even reached out to Willette and asked her to send him her daily analysis. . . .Sand said that he keeps in touch with Willette because he wants to see and understand what data and metrics Iowans actually have access to during the pandemic, especially given the variability of which data is available and easy to understand.” 

Metro Des Moines television station KCCI also did a puff piece on her, saying, “Willette uses her math background to meticulously collect and update Iowa coronavirus numbers.” The piece also discusses the fact that the Iowa State Education Association (the state teachers’ union) was financially supporting Willette’s data collection work.

In one Des Moines Register editorial, Willette dubs herself a “citizen scientist.” She doesn’t limit herself to mere data collection. In an article in The Daily Iowan, she shares her thoughts on the efficacy of masks and whether herd immunity will be developed. And she shares suggestions on her feed of ways to stay safe from COVID:

 

In August, the Gazette ran this quote from Willette, “We’re looking at schools going dark quickly, staff dying and students and family members getting sick.”  

Let that statement sink in.

In summary, Willette has placed herself at the center of the debate about COVID response in Iowa. The media has allowed her to drive the narrative of Iowa as a place where mitigation of the pandemic has failed. In so doing, she had established herself as an expert in the pandemic’s past, present, and future, a person, held up in comparison to public health experts in the Reynolds administration.

But newly revealed court documents obtained by Iowa Field Report show that Willette is not the expert that she claims to be. Rather than a trained data scientist, public health official, or epidemiologist qualified to offer opinions on the pandemic and responses to it; she is a former dog walker with no academic training in the subject of her prolific Twitter feed and frequent news hits.

According to court documents, Willette completed her undergraduate training at the University of Iowa, which focused on medieval history, religious studies, and classical languages. She completed that undergraduate work in 2005, and her resume shows no work history until 2013, when she started working as a dog walker under the trade name of “Furry Friends Pet Care.”

Willette apparently abandoned her career as a dog walker in March 2020 for the new enterprise of being the “chief data officer” of her website iowacovid19tracker.org. She also started “IAC Tracker, Inc.” an Iowa non-profit corporation.

According to Iowa Secretary of State records, she filed articles of incorporation for IAC Tracker, Inc. on September 8, 2020, as the sole officer of the corporation. The stated business activity of the corporation is to provide “data transparency, education, outreach, and guidance regarding COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.” The articles also state that the corporation is intended to qualify as a tax-exempt organization as a 501(c)(3) with the IRS, which means that donations to the corporation are exempt from taxation.

But despite the claimed charitable purpose of her corporation, a search of the Internal Revenue Service’s database of tax-exempt organizations shows no record of the corporation having actually filed with the IRS for that status. Without such an IRS filing, IAC Tracker, Inc. cannot legally claim that it is operating as a 501(c)(3) charity.

Iowa Secretary of State documents show that IAC Tracker, Inc. was administratively dissolved on September 7, 2021. Because there is no record of the corporation having filed its annual report,so it seems likely that the corporation was dissolved for this reason.

Willette’s educational background and work history were revealed in an affidavit submitted in litigation challenging the Iowa legislature’s decision to prohibit school districts from requiring students, staff, and visitors from wearing masks. A parent from Council Bluffs has sued Governor Reynolds and several other state departments and their directors challenging that law. The affidavit included Willette’s resume:

Iowa’s media and liberal establishment (but we repeat ourselves) have some explaining to do. What was the vetting process before a dog walker was cited authoritatively in numerous articles about Iowa’s response to the pandemic? What role does the media have in elevating someone like her or policing other outlets that have?

Providing uninformed opinions on social media is one thing; it’s a free country. But submitting yourself as an expert witness in a court of law for a topic you have no qualifications for is something else entirely.

How did a person, according to her resume, with no professional healthcare experience, place herself in the middle of one of the biggest healthcare debates the state has ever known?  And how did reporters think it was a good idea to start calling her a “data scientist” and  quoting her as saying things like, “we’re looking at schools going dark quickly, staff dying and students and family members getting sick.” How is that responsible journalism?

How is it that Carson King, who was just an unexpected hero raising money for sick children and not asking for anything or giving opinions on public policy, was subject to an intense background investigation going back to his high-school years, while Willette is just given puff piece after puff piece?

Parents across Iowa rely on the media and news reporters to make decisions about their children’s health and education. Before this individual is cited again by any media source or taken seriously by anyone in the public, we need to have some answers.

UPDATE:

Friday, September 10th 3:02 pm CDT

After the publication of this article, Willette tweeted that she had been listed as the co-author of two academic articles. Both articles listed her husband, Iowa State University Associate Professor Auriel Willette as the primary author. One article, titled “Using machine learning to predict COVID-19 infection and severity risk among 4,510 aged adults: a UK Biobank cohort study” was published January 5, 2021. It listed Sara Willette’s academic affiliation as “Iowa COVID-19 Tracker, Ames, IA, USA.”:

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The second article, from July 2021, was titled “Inflammation, negative affect, and amyloid burden in Alzheimer’s disease: Insights from the kynurenine pathway.” It listed Sara Willette’s academic affiliation as “Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA.”:
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But a review of that department’s website by Iowa Field Report does not list Sara Willette as a member of its staff or faculty. Iowa Field Report has submitted an inquiry with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition to learn of Sara Willette’s affiliation with it. This story will be updated when we receive a response.