IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s governor said the state’s $26 million contract to increase coronavirus testing was reached after she acted on a tip from actor Ashton Kutcher, a revelation that increased skepticism about the no-bid deal.
Critics of Gov. Kim Reynolds said they were puzzled by the celebrity’s cameo in Iowa’s outbreak response, particularly when the state has been slow to tap some of its own experts.
Reynolds, a Republican, said she recently called Kutcher, an Iowa native, to ask him to record a public service announcement urging residents to stay home.
Kutcher asked whether she’d heard about TestUtah, a public-private partnership recently launched to increase testing, Reynolds said. The actor told her “it looked very promising and it looked like other states should potentially take a look,” the governor recalled.
Kutcher, a tech investor, volunteered that he had a friend working for one of the TestUtah contractors and offered to arrange a meeting. Reynolds said she spoke with Kutcher’s associate and her aides soon connected with the office of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
“We were able to start that conversation and ramp it up relatively quickly,” Reynolds said.
Last week, Iowa signed a $26 million contract with Nomi Health, a virtually unknown Utah startup that says it’s developing a “modern payment system for healthcare.”
Under the contract, Nomi Health will supply 540,000 coronavirus tests to Iowa over the next six months. Its partners include Utah-based Co-Diagnostics, which recently received federal approval to sell COVID-19 testing kits, and tech firms Qualtrics and Domo.
The companies will also run the TestIowa website where residents take voluntary assessments to determine whether they qualify for testing and set up testing appointments.
Kutcher, a venture capitalist, is not an investor in the firms, his publicist said.
It wasn’t immediately clear which Kutcher friend was involved. But he has ties to Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, whose company is providing Iowa’s online assessment tool and has previously worked with the state.
In a Qualtrics news release, Reynolds said the company’s product will save lives by helping Iowa monitor the virus and determine where to put testing sites. Smith called the deal “an example of the way we all need to come together to fight this virus.”
Reynolds launched a #TestIowaChallenge campaign on Twitter urging residents to complete the assessments, which ask for personal health and contact information. The governor challenged Kutcher, who recorded a promotional video. More than 80,000 people completed assessments in the first 24 hours.
The contract requires Nomi Health to safeguard the confidential assessment data and either return or destroy it when the program is over.
The program aims to roughly triple Iowa’s testing capacity by adding 3,000 tests per day, which will be conducted at mobile sites around the state. The first testing will begin Saturday in Des Moines.
Reynolds revealed Kutcher’s role when asked why she didn’t consider Iowa-based institutions or companies for the contract. Minnesota is partnering with the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic for statewide testing.
The governor said the deal “has an Iowa touch.”
Kutcher grew up in Cedar Rapids, graduated from high school in Tiffin and became a model while attending the University of Iowa. He hit it big on “That ’70s Show” before starring in movies such as “Valentine’s Day” and “No Strings Attached.”
Critics questioned why the governor took input from Kutcher but doesn’t appear to have consulted top Iowa experts on the testing contract.
“Mr. Kutcher seems like a great guy but not sure what public health expertise he brings for advising our pandemic response,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who has faulted the governor for failing to protect workers during the pandemic. “But if he’s available, maybe he can go inspect the meatpacking plants.”
The state reported Thursday that Iowa’s coronavirus death toll has risen by six to 96 and that 282 infected residents were hospitalized. Half of the dead are residents of long-term care facilities, Reynolds said.