Tuesday, 02 May 2023 06:25

The COVID Tracking Project Part 3

Credit: Illustration by Amanda Northrup

The final episode of our three-part series takes listeners inside the failed federal response to COVID-19 and explores the massive volunteer effort to collect data about the disease.

This is the third episode in our three-part series taking listeners inside the failed federal response to COVID-19. Series host Jessica Malaty Rivera and reporters Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler bring us the conclusion of The COVID Tracking Project story and an interview with the current CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

We look at the myth that COVID-19 was “the great equalizer,” an idea touted by celebrities and politicians from Madonna to then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Ibram X. Kendi and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research worked with The COVID Tracking Project to compile national numbers on how COVID-19 affected people of color in the U.S. Their effort, The COVID Racial Data Tracker, showed that people of color died from the disease at around twice the rate of White people.

The COVID Tracking Project’s volunteer data collection team waited months for the CDC to release COVID-19 testing data. But when the CDC finally started publishing the data, it was different from what states were publishing – in some instances, it was off by hundreds of thousands of tests. With no clear answers about why, The COVID Tracking Project’s quest to keep national data flowing every day continued until March 2021.

Lastly, Rivera talks with the director of the CDC, Walensky, to try to understand what went wrong in the agency’s response to the pandemic and ask whether it’s prepared for the next one.

Check out our whole COVID Tracking Project series here.

Dig Deeper

Explore: The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic


the covid tracking project

Series host: Jessica Malaty Rivera | Series producers and reporters: Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler | Series editor: Michael I Schiller | Production assistants: Max Maldonado, Kori Suzuki and Aarushi Sahejpal | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Amanda Northrup | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martinez and Michael Montgomery | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Co-executive producers: Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler

Special thanks to The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic | This series is presented by Tableau.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson, and let’s go back to March, 2020. It’s the early days of the pandemic. Most of us are at home trying to figure out what’s safe.
Speaker 2: I am going to treat this fruit. I’m going to dump it in some soapy water here. Disinfecting more liberally. Spray the disinfectant right on those items, on these groceries.
Al Letson: Life just shifts into this alternate reality. People start dancing together on Instagram.
Speaker 3: Once again, let’s be nice.
Al Letson: Celebrities do concerts from their living rooms.
Speaker 4: I want thank all the healthcare workers risking their lives to save ours. Thank you guys so much.
Speaker 5: Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow.
Al Letson: Madonna posts a video that goes viral.
Madonna: That’s the thing about Covid-19. It doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, how old you are.
Al Letson: She’s in a bathtub. The water is cloudy and filled with flower pedals.
Madonna: It’s the great equalizer.
Al Letson: Suddenly, Madonna’s deep thoughts in the bathtub start shaping the way people talk about Covid.
Andrew Cuomo: Everyone is subject to this virus. It is the great equalizer.
Al Letson: Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York at the time, starts running with it, and if you listen to him side by side with that Madonna video, you can tell it matches almost verbatim.
Andrew Cuomo: I don’t care how smart…
Madonna: How smart you are…
Andrew Cuomo: How rich…
Madonna: How rich you are…
Andrew Cuomo: How powerful you think you are. I don’t care how young, how old…
Madonna: How old you are.
Andrew Cuomo: This virus is…
Madonna and Cuo…: The great equalizer.
Al Letson: This idea that Covid makes us all equally vulnerable starts popping up all over.
Newscaster: Covid 19 has been the great equalizer.
Newscaster: The great equalizer.
Newscaster: This virus is the great equalizer.
Al Letson: But the thing is, it’s not true.
Ibram X. Kendi: People wanted to believe the myth that Covid was the great equalizer and that race didn’t matter, just as I think people want to believe that myth in general.
Al Letson: Ibram X. Kendi is a MacArthur genius fellow, and author of How To Be An Antiracist.
Ibram X. Kendi: It’s very easy to believe that race or racism isn’t having an impact on the pandemic when you don’t have any racial data to prove or disprove that.
Al Letson: At the beginning of April, 2020, only a handful of cities and states are reporting racial demographics for Covid. We don’t know how many Black people are dying from the virus across the nation or how many Latinos have tested positive. So Ibram publishes an article in the Atlantic and asks the question, why don’t we know who the Coronavirus victims are?
Ibram X. Kendi: I think by the end of the first week of April, a handful of states and counties had released racial demographic data, and we immediately started seeing racial disparities.
Newscaster: The severity of this disease and the African-American community.
Black Chicago residents are dying at many times the rate of white residents.
It’s a crisis within a crisis.
Ibram X. Kendi: I started to think that just as people are tracking Covid data in general, we need to be tracking racial data. And I connected with the Covid Tracking Project to build the Covid Racial Data Tracker.
Al Letson: The Covid Tracking Project is a volunteer effort to compile Covid data from across the us. They join up with Ibram’s team at Boston University Center for anti-racist research to gather numbers on how Covid is hitting Black and brown communities. They call it the Covid Racial Data Tracker.
Ibram X. Kendi: The pandemic revealed the ways in which there’s so many populations that sit in the sort of shadows, like literally in the shadows. Certain states are lumping certain racial groups together, while others are separating them.
Al Letson: The data that does exist on state health websites reveals the unequal impact of Covid.
Ibram X. Kendi: The data showed that Black people and native people were typically dying of Covid at the highest rates. The data showed that Latinx Americans were typically more likely to contract coronavirus than their white counterparts.
Al Letson: In the summer of 2020, data from the Covid Tracking Project shows in cases where race is known, people of color are dying at around twice the rate of white people.
Ibram X. Kendi: So Covid was not the great equalizer, and if anything, it exacerbated the challenges that already exist, that led to people of color being more likely to face this disease and die from it.
Al Letson: Today on Reveal, we’re bringing you the final installment of our three-part series investigating why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underperformed during the Covid Pandemic, especially when it came to having good data. This is the Covid Tracking Project, part three. Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera is our guide.
Jessica Malaty …: After the Covid Racial Data Tracker launches, the CDC puts out a report detailing who’s most impacted by Covid. In it, the CDC says that their race and ethnicity data continues to improve, but more complete data might be found from sources like the Covid Tracking Project.
Newscaster: Now this is a site, it’s called the Covid Tracking Project. It has the data…
The Covid Tracking Project.
According to data CNN collected from the Covid Tracking Project.
Jessica Malaty …: Earlier in this series, we told you how the Covid Tracking Project started. In March of 2020, the CDC wasn’t providing up-to-date Covid data, so two reporters went state by state to try and figure out how many people had been tested for the virus in the US. They wrote a story about it for the Atlantic. There were conspired an army of volunteers, including me, to join them. Together, we compiled the numbers from all 50 states into one central database.
Newscaster: According to the Covid Tracking Project…
Newscaster: Data from The Covid Tracking Project…
Newscaster: More than 13,000 people…
The Covid Tracking Project finds…
Newscaster: More than 3.2 million tests have been run in the United States.
Jessica Malaty …: In April, the Covid Tracking Project volunteers are still filling a void. We’re providing all kinds of essential information, from racial data to case counts to hospitalizations and deaths.
Newscaster: According to the Covid Tracking Project, our single day death toll hit a new record high today.
Jessica Malaty …: Covid Tracking Project data is everywhere.
Newscaster: …The Covid Tracking Project, hospitalization is up 20%.
Jessica Malaty …: Johns Hopkins University, one of the top ranked public health schools in the world, is pulling our testing and hospitalization data directly into their dashboard. News stations are reading the numbers daily.
Newscaster: …Covid-19 tests were conducted, a US one-day record.
Newscaster: Covid Tracking Project…
Alexis Madrigal: Basically everyone on this earth was using those numbers.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis Madrigal is one of the co-founders of the project.
Alexis Madrigal: And they were using them as a substitute for what the CDC numbers were. Dozens to even sometimes hundreds of local television stations.
Newscaster: Now, your health, your safety.
Newscaster: Take a look at this case. It’s from the Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project.
Right now, according to the Covid Tracking Project the US has tested about…
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, they would directly replicate our charts. Whatever chart we made, they would just slap it into their graphics package and run it, hundreds of times a day.
Newscaster: …A million tests have been run in the United States.
According to the Covid Tracking Project…
Jessica Malaty …: It started as a piece of journalism, but a month and a half later, Covid Tracking Project is a public service with hundreds of volunteers putting in shifts day and night.
Newscaster: Covid Tracking Project volunteers…
Newscaster: According to the Covid Tracking Project, roughly 150,000 people have tested.
Newscaster: The Covid Tracking Project showed that…
Jessica Malaty …: And people inside the government tell us they’re using our numbers too.
Newscaster: According to the Covid Tracking Project today…
Newscaster: According to the Covid Tracking Project…
The Covid Tracking Project…
Jessica Malaty …: The stress of it is getting to all of us. Alexis has lost 20 pounds. Volunteers are burning out. We have a system to double check the numbers, but we can’t catch everything.
Alexis Madrigal: I mean, I can still remember one time we published an extra zero on New Jersey or on New York, and I was just like, crushed. It was a true just fat finger, one extra digit. If you go back and look at the tweets from that time, because I was doing all the tweets, I was always just like, apologizing profusely. Just like, “We’re doing the best we can.:
Jessica Malaty …: Co-director Erin Kissane is feeling the anxiety too.
Erin Kissane: It is really terrifying to manually input national pandemic numbers that we are finding out are being used by the federal government.
Jessica Malaty …: One of her routines at the time is to watch all of the White House Covid press conferences, and in April she starts to notice an eerie similarity to the numbers Covid Tracking Project is publishing.
Erin Kissane: The numbers mike Pence read on the television were our numbers, but rounded.
Jessica Malaty …: On April 1st, the Covid Tracking Project reports 1,306,569 tests conducted, and the next day…
Mike Pence: At the present moment, more than 1.3 million tests have been performed, and as you all…
Jessica Malaty …: On April 2nd, the Covid Tracking Project reports 1,437,715 tests. Then the following day…
Mike Pence: More than 1.4 million tests have been performed across the country, and as you all are aware, some 200…
Jessica Malaty …: On April 14th, the Covid Tracking Project reports 27,871 deaths. A day later…
Mike Pence: Sadly, we mourn the loss of more than 27,000 of our countrymen.
Jessica Malaty …: And eventually, the White House just comes right out and says it.
Erin Kissane: The Trump White House published their Reopening America report. They put our testing data in the report. So they weren’t just privately using the numbers. It was like, are you kidding me? I mean, we’re doing the best job we can. We’re really trying to be great volunteer public health data people, but this is what you have? This is you’re using? Yeah, it was terrible.
Jessica Malaty …: Erin, Alexis, and volunteers like me are just waiting for the CDC to publish timely and accurate Covid data, because as soon as that happens, we can stop. Everyone is just exhausted.
Alexis Madrigal: Then one day, the CDC published some testing data.
Jessica Malaty …: A volunteer first notices it on May 13th, 2020.
Erin Kissane: I remember it more clearly than almost any one part of the project. It is burned in.
Alexis Madrigal: I think it was about 100 days into the pandemic.
Erin Kissane: It was a sunny morning. Walked outside my front door. The birds were singing, and I fainted like a Victorian sensationalist novel character. I walked outside. I didn’t fall down, but my blood pressure just went away and I had to lie down on the sidewalk, because the physical relief just hit me in the body, that we were going to get to put this down. And my partner came out and was like, “Are you okay? What’s going on?” And I was like, “The CDC published the data.”
Jessica Malaty …: Erin and Alexis discovered the CDC had quietly started publishing state Covid testing data five days earlier. No notice, no post, no memo, no tweet, nothing.
Erin Kissane: A lot of people still didn’t know that the CDC had published this, because there was no way to know. You really had to be a nerd digging through the CDC’s website to even discover that they were doing it.
Jessica Malaty …: New national and state level Covid case counts, death counts and testing data is suddenly available to be downloaded from the CDC website.
Alexis Madrigal: I remember seeing the CDC data and saying to myself like, “Oh man, we did it. Here we go. We got the CDC to publish these numbers.” And the big question was, did this match up? If it matched up with what we were creating, then we were done.
Jessica Malaty …: So Alexis downloads the testing data from the CDC website and starts comparing it to the data from the Covid Tracking Project.
Alexis Madrigal: So I pull down the CDC data, throw it into spreadsheet and essentially see that it’s more or less the worst case scenario, which is the data is different for almost all the states.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis goes down the line state by state. He compares the numbers.
Alexis Madrigal: You wanted that difference to be zero.
Jessica Malaty …: But it’s not. The testing numbers are off by hundreds of thousands. California was reporting about 200,000 fewer tests than the CDC, but Florida was the opposite. It was reporting about 200,000 more. There were only three states, plus the District of Columbia, where the CDC’s numbers matched precisely.
Alexis Madrigal: I tried to have a little bit of hope like, oh, well, maybe we can explain it.
Erin Kissane: And maybe the testing data’s going to rapidly get much better and we’ll be done. We’ll be done here.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis decides to reach out to one of his contacts in the federal government, Amy Gleason. She works on the data team for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Amy’s been trying to get Covid data flowing between states, hospitals and the federal agencies.
Amy Gleason: We got a congrats email from Alexis, and we had a conversation and he’s like, “So, does this mean we can stop now? Is all, this is going to be good?” And we had to have that conversation that our data really wasn’t yet at the level that you could get in the Covid Tracking Project, and so I asked him not to stop. It was a hard thing, because that was my personal opinion, not anything from the government’s perspective.
Alexis Madrigal: All I really remember from that time with everybody being like, “No, yeah, definitely don’t stop doing that.”
Jessica Malaty …: So Alexis and Erin hold an emergency meeting for everyone on the project.
Erin Kissane: Did we announce this again in announcements?
Alexis Madrigal: Oh yeah. Like, hey, it’s right now.
Erin Kissane: Yeah, if somebody could drop a zoom link in.
Jessica Malaty …: They need to fill people in on the CDC data release.
Alexis Madrigal: The first thing to say is, we are not going to have quite the normal all hands meeting here, in part because we have a quite seismic event in the CDC beginning to put out data that we’ve all sort of wanted to see for a long time.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis and Erin talk about what they’re seeing in the data and mull over what the Covid Tracking Project should do next.
Alexis Madrigal: Because the CDC waited so long to do this, waited ’til 80,000 people had died before they put these numbers out, there’s going to be a period of confusion here, and I think we can just help.
Jessica Malaty …: They announce that they’re assembling a team to write a report.
Erin Kissane: We’ll have something for the CDC to look at before the weekend.
Jessica Malaty …: The plan is to figure out why there’s a difference between Covid Tracking Project data and this new data from the CDC.
Erin Kissane: Thank you, everybody.
Alexis Madrigal: Thanks. Bye.
Erin Kissane: We’ll see you in Slack.
Jessica Malaty …: And for the next four days, more than 30 people churn out this report. Alexis, Aaron and I spend hours on the phone trying to interpret what the CDC’s numbers mean, because with the numbers this different, it’s obvious that something is very wrong.
Alexis Madrigal: You couldn’t have testing numbers that were wildly different going out at the state level and the federal level and not be able to at least even begin to explain why that was.
Erin Kissane: I stayed up all night one night to finish up the report analysis, and I am too old to do that shit.
Jessica Malaty …: Our testing numbers come directly from state websites, so where is the CDC getting their numbers? There’s no pattern. We publish our report and Alexis tries to get anyone from the CDC on the phone to talk it through.
Alexis Madrigal: I was making a lot of calls into the CDC. I was trying to get CDC people to talk to me off the record.
Erin Kissane: Over and over and over.
Alexis Madrigal: Trying to get people there to talk about what was happening.
Erin Kissane: And generally what we got was no response at all.
Alexis Madrigal: I actually failed pretty spectacularly. I’ve never gotten a CDC person to tell me anything very interesting.
Erin Kissane: They weren’t going to talk to us. Do you know, if I take the most charitable perspective it was probably insulting. I mean, we were amateurs all the way through.
Jessica Malaty …: We’re stunned by the crickets. We never give up trying to reach them, but we also never succeed in getting anyone at the CDC to engage us in a meaningful conversation about their data. At one point, we hear from a government source that the Covid Tracking Project is giving the CDC indigestion.
Erin Kissane: The entire time we had been pulling for the CDC to come out and do the work, because they had everything. They had the authority, the public health expertise. They are the actual government. It is their job. The whole project, we advocated in every way we could for the CDC to do the work of making good data public.
Alexis Madrigal: The whole point was to get them to release the data. That was the journalism accountability component of this project.
Jessica Malaty …: What started out as a journalism project had turned into something else, a substitute for government data.
Alexis Madrigal: We were like, oh, shit. This actually is being used as a replacement, and the CDC’s release doesn’t actually change that. And from then on, we had to think infrastructure.
Jessica Malaty …: At this point, we realized that the federal government has been relying on us as infrastructure for weeks. Our data is being used by teams at FEMA to place testing sites across the country and distribute ventilators and testing supplies, and the White House Coronavirus Task Force is sending our numbers to all 50 governors in their daily report.
Erin Kissane: We felt really responsible. There are periods where we felt like if we did not do the work we were doing, people wouldn’t know in time what was going to happen. It is a crushing responsibility to feel that way. I know there are people in public health who have chosen that work and are professionally prepared to be part of that, and most of us were not.
Al Letson: Coming up, a miscalculation triggers a travel quarantine.
Speaker 17: This is really impacting travel restrictions for Rhode Islanders, who have now just been put on the list for Massachusetts and Connecticut, our two neighboring states. I really need to escalate this.
Al Letson: The Covid Tracking Project winds down.
Alexis Madrigal: We’re looking into a hopeful future where the government does its job, where the pandemic eases and ends.
Al Letson: And we take a blunt look at the federal response to Covid
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Our systems, the way we organize them, failed, and we just have to be that honest. It failed us at the beginning. It’s failing us now. We still have more deaths than most other countries that are developed as much as we are. We are failing, and until we admit to ourselves, whatever we put in place is still not enough, we’re just going to keep doing more of the same.
Al Letson: That’s coming up after a short break. You are listening to Reveal.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
In the US, Covid-19 hit assisted living facilities and nursing homes harder than anywhere else, claiming an outsized number of lives.
Newscaster: At the Covid Tracking Project, they reported that even though less than 1%…
Newscaster: Less than 1% of the population…
Newscaster: Lives in long-term care facilities.
That’s nursing homes and assisted living centers.
Newscaster: But have had 40% of the Covid deaths.
Newscaster: 40% of virus-related deaths.
Al Letson: The federal government and the CDC didn’t have accurate numbers about how many people were dying across the country, but the Covid Tracking Project did. Their data showed that in the first year of the pandemic, about 175,000 people had died from the virus in these facilities, and that data proved crucial. Federal officials used that information to help justify their decision about where to send vaccines first.
Newscaster: As of last week, those people account for more than a third of all Covid deaths in this country.
Al Letson: Today, we’re bringing you the story of the Covid Tracking Project and asking why it had to exist in the first place. Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera takes it from here.
Jessica Malaty …: The Covid Tracking Project collects data from each state every day and puts it into one central database for the nation. But what we publish is only as good as what states provide, so to motivate states to give us the most complete data, we start giving them letter grades.
Kevin Stitt: Our data has been given an A-plus grade.
Newscaster: The Covid Tracking Project gives Arizona an A-plus.
Newscaster: A-Plus.
Newscaster: An A-plus rating from the Covid Tracking Project.
Newscaster: An A-plus from the Covid Tracking Project.
Jessica Malaty …: We’re grading states because there are no national data standards, which makes it really hard to know things like, are cases rising in your state, and how does that compare to states around you? It’s the kind of stuff that citizens expect the CDC to provide in the middle of a pandemic.
Alexis Madrigal: The idea that you wouldn’t be able to tell people how many people had Covid around them while asking them to take extraordinary measures in their own lives, that you were just sort of like, “Well, probably some,” but you wouldn’t actually have a number. That struck me as completely unhinged.
Jessica Malaty …: That’s Alexis Madrigal, co-founder of the Covid Tracking Project.
Alexis Madrigal: There was a need for data and data analysis that the CDC refused to provide, and it opened up all this space that other people filled. So, some of those people are the New York Times and Hopkins and ourselves.
Jessica Malaty …: Since early April, Johns Hopkins University has been publishing our state testing data on their website, but then in mid-May, they do something different with it. They start using the data to build an automated tool, a test positivity tracker.
Alexis Madrigal: Hopkins came up with this kind of testing tracker, which was just used Covid Tracking Project data and did some very basic calculations of positivity rate and things like that.
Jessica Malaty …: In other words, how many Covid tests are coming back positive? Do a lot of people have Covid in your state?
Alexis Madrigal: At first, that seemed fine, but we came to really feel, and heard from states, that that tracker was causing a lot of problems.
Jessica Malaty …: States are using these automated numbers calculated by the Johns Hopkins tracker to determine travel restrictions. Because the data is so inconsistent, the calculations are not always right. In July, the tracker makes North Dakota’s positivity rate look really high, which causes anyone coming from North Dakota to be put on New York’s mandatory quarantine list. North Dakota’s governor, Doug Burgum, talks about it in a press conference.
Doug Burgum: John Hopkins is using the Covid tracking data. I think there’s state by state comparison issues. There is some data from North Dakota that wasn’t accurate in there.
Jessica Malaty …: The same thing happens in Rhode Island. Producer Kara Oehler is working on the Covid Tracking Project at the time, and she’s been communicating with state public health departments for months. One morning, she gets a voicemail from a government official.
Speaker 17: Hi, Kara. I work in the governor’s office at Rhode Island.
Jessica Malaty …: The Johns Hopkins tracker calculations are triggering a travel warning for Rhode Island. A mandatory quarantine goes into place for Rhode Islanders traveling to certain states.
Speaker 17: This is really impacting travel restrictions for Rhode Islanders. We’ve now just been put on the list for Massachusetts and Connecticut, our two neighboring states. I really need to escalate this. If you could do anything to help me out, that would be great. Thank you. Bye.
Jessica Malaty …: Let’s pause for a moment. The Covid Tracking Project didn’t cause the travel restrictions for the people of Rhode Island. We collected their data, and Rhode Island did great. We gave them an A-plus. But the problem was, they weren’t reporting on Sundays, so when they played catch up on Mondays and entered the weekend data into the system, the Johns Hopkins tracker calculated what looked like a spike in positive tests, but it was really just because public health officials took Sunday off, hence the travel ban.
Alexis Madrigal: You basically had Covid Tracking Project data filtered through this dashboard that we couldn’t control dictate the policies of states, and it was a disaster.
Jessica Malaty …: The snafus that are causing travel restrictions eventually get worked out, but this whole thing could have been avoided. All any state needed was clear guidance from the CDC on when and how to report data, and how not to use data. Basic data standards.
Speaker 21: Is anybody keeping an eye on Tennessee?
Speaker 22: To the extent that I am, yes.
Erin Kissane: Yeah, I’ve checked it a bunch of times, too.
Speaker 23: Yeah, me too.
Jessica Malaty …: Every day for a whole year of the pandemic, the Covid Tracking Project collects data for the country.
Erin Kissane: Texas had another weird drop.
Speaker 22: Sounds like Texas.
Speaker 21: So we may need to add a note for Texas?
Jessica Malaty …: We provide a data backbone for two presidential administrations. Our work is used for vaccine analyses and national Covid response plans. Congress uses our data about nursing homes, and the NAACP uses our race and ethnicity data in lawsuits with states and the federal government.
Speaker 22: Elliot, can you look at Idaho Thread?
Speaker 21: Utah is okay.
Speaker 24: Checking Tennessee.
Erin Kissane: New Mexico just went, actually.
Jessica Malaty …: It’s hard but satisfying work. Once people start volunteering, it’s tough to put it down.
Erin Kissane: Everyone who has been working on it did so at significant cost to their personal lives.
Speaker 23: Everyone’s made insane personal sacrifices. I’m not the only one who’s like walked away from school and my graduation, everything. So, I don’t know. I would love to take away any of the negative repercussions of the work here, but I don’t really think you can.
Jessica Malaty …: We’re a tight-knit organization, and kind of trauma bonded by all the work we do. Feels like we’ve been doing this for years. We celebrate birthdays, mourn losses. We meet each other’s kids and pets.
Speaker 23: My cat is making noise. I’m just waiting him to stop.
Speaker 25: Whose dog is barking?
Speaker 21: Mine.
Jessica Malaty …: We make sense of the pandemic and what’s happening across the globe together.
Erin Kissane: This project and all of our people are so integrated into my way of processing the world.
Jessica Malaty …: Through it all, we keep gathering the data.
Speaker 21: I checked Florida and Texas.
Speaker 24: Checking Tennessee,
Speaker 21: So Colorado and Tennessee, outstanding.
Speaker 25: Okay, North Dakota.
Jessica Malaty …: And then we decided it was time to stop.
Newscaster: For the last year, during this pandemic, the data compiled by the folks at the Covid Tracking Project has been a huge part of our coverage of Covid.
Jessica Malaty …: The Covid Tracking Projects went pencils down exactly a year after it started.
Newscaster: Last night’s update was the final day of data collection for the Covid Tracking Project.
Jessica Malaty …: We didn’t stop because the CDC data was so amazing and then we became redundant. We just had to.
Newscaster: They’re now stepping back because they believe that this should be a job for the federal government.
Jessica Malaty …: Volunteerism has this great place in American society, but it should not be the basis of our nation’s infrastructure, especially when we’re talking about the response to a public health emergency.
Erin Kissane: This is stolen time, from families and jobs and school and lives, and also, so many of us were so exhausted.
Jessica Malaty …: People had full-time jobs and families that they needed to get back to, and it just required hundreds of people kind of dropping everything else in order to do this. But we were still worried about the future of Covid data.
Speaker 21: The hospitalization numbers came back up in New Jersey.
Speaker 25: Somebody can have Tennessee. I have a really hard time getting it to show up for me.
Erin Kissane: Georgia started reporting antigen tests.
Speaker 25: Alabama didn’t up the…
Speaker 21: Iowa is done.
Jessica Malaty …: On March 7th, 2021, we tweeted out the day’s Covid data. For the last time. Alexis and co-founder Erin Kissane gathered people together for a final goodbye.
Alexis Madrigal: With our last few minutes here, I just want to say one last thing to you all about this project. The first step in the accountability that I think we all want to see is assessing the toll. It’s counting.
Jessica Malaty …: In one year, we had counted more than 28 million cases and more than a half a million deaths. But along the way, there was a historic public health breakthrough, the Covid-19 vaccines. We saw vaccines being distributed to people most at risk, and deaths started to slow down. It gave us hope.
Alexis Madrigal: And now things are getting better. We’re looking into a hopeful future where the government does its job, where the pandemic eases and ends. Thank you all. That’s it. That’s our last all hands, I think. Erin, got anything?
Erin Kissane: Thank you, everyone. That’s the whole story. Thank you all.
Alexis Madrigal: All right, bye.
Speaker 24: All right, guys. That will be a wrap on Pope shift.
Speaker 21: Bye-bye.
Speaker 25: Bye.
Speaker 22: Bye. Take good care.
Speaker 26: Bye, guys.
Speaker 27: Bye. Data to the people.
Speaker 28: Goodbye.
Jessica Malaty …: When the Covid Tracking Project shut down, we knew a lot of the things we built, like the Covid Racial Data Tracker and the long-term care tracker wouldn’t continue, and so our nation’s understanding of the impact on these communities would become largely invisible. There was a real sense of loss, but there was also hope that some of the systems that the government put into place throughout the first year of the pandemic would carry the nation forward. We saw federal Covid hospitalization data go from non-existent to covering almost every hospital by the end of the year.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: It is important that we look at both what worked and what didn’t work and address those issues in real time to save American lives.
Jessica Malaty …: That’s Dr. Deborah Birx testifying in front of congress in 2022. She was the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus task force. At the beginning of the pandemic. Her team built the system that got 98% of hospitals reporting.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: CDC wasn’t going to do it. They wouldn’t stand up that database. They wouldn’t get 6,000 hospitals reporting. They believed that modeling was more accurate than the real-time data.
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx spent decades in public health and much of her career working for the CDC. She says the agency needs a major overhaul to be ready for the next pandemic.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Over the last couple of decades, they became a historic looking backwards public health institution, rather than a proactive, let’s use data and even dirty data in real time to address major public health problems. They became much more theoretical public health rather than action-oriented public health.
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx says it will take more than adding people and funding to fix a broken public health system.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Our systems, the way we organize them, failed, and we just have to be that honest. It failed us at the beginning. It’s failing us now. We still have more deaths than most other countries that are developed as much as we are. We are failing, and until we admit to ourselves, whatever we put in place is still not enough, we’re just going to keep doing more of the same. So don’t ever blame it on people and funding. That is just an excuse. CDC’s issues are really around decisions and lack of accountability.
Al Letson: Last August, the CDC announced that the agency needs a reset.
Newscaster: After a review found missteps in the Covid response, Dr. Rochelle Walensky has announced major changes for the agency are on the way.
Al Letson: Coming up after the break, Jessica interviews CDC director Rochelle Walensky.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: We’re about 60,000 public health workers in deficit. Our laboratory infrastructure within the nation, across the nation, has been underinvested in, and our data systems across the nation have been underinvested in.
Al Letson: You’re listening to Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Last summer, the CDC conducted an internal review showing that it was responsible for large public mistakes in the way it handled Covid-19.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: I think we need to recognize that in our big moment, our performance didn’t reliably meet the expectations of this country, and that’s exactly why I called for this reset.
Al Letson: CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced that major changes are on the way. And
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: My goal really, as we hit this reset, was to have a new public health action-oriented culture. That really emphasizes accountability, that emphasizes collaboration with our public health partners across the country, communication to the American public, and timeliness.
Al Letson: What does a reset really look like, and will it be enough to prepare the CDC for the next pandemic? Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera had an opportunity to ask those questions of Dr. Walensky when she joined us via Zoom from CDC headquarters in Atlanta.
Jessica Malaty …: Hello, Dr. Walensky. It’s nice to meet you.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Good afternoon, Jessica.
Jessica Malaty …: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Of course. Happy to.
Jessica Malaty …: Recently, you’ve made a number of really big statements about some pretty dramatic changes, and even some public mistakes, from testing to data communications. So, I’m curious if you can help us understand how this reorganized, reimagined CDC will work.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Yeah, thank you for the opportunity here. So, I came into the agency in January of 2021, and one of the things that became very clear is that we had lessons that we needed to learn as an agency and as public health across the nation. And so, we wanted to sort of cast a wide net, talk to a lot of people, and understand the things that we did well and the challenges that we had, so that we can be better prepared as the public health agency of the future.
So, we did a lot of listening sessions, both people within the agency, people who were in charge of our public health response, and I think over a hundred interviews were done. Some of the common themes we heard were that we need to share our science faster, that we need to have implementable public health guidance, that we need to communicate better, that we need a workforce that is ready to respond, able to respond, and that we need to be a better partner.
We also, as part of this, took on a reorganization in the agency, and part of that reorganization was to promote accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness. There were pieces of the agency that did not necessarily thrive during the pandemic, but really, part of that was because we were not nimble in our organizational structure.
Jessica Malaty …: Right. I’d like to ideate a little bit with you and imagine that, say there’s another deadly virus and it’s just beginning to spread in the United States. Could you be very specific about how would that be different from three years ago?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Well, CDC and the United States started this pandemic on a particularly frail public health infrastructure. There have been studies that have demonstrated that we’re about 60,000 public health workers in deficit. Our laboratory infrastructure within the nation, across the nation, has been underinvested in, and our data systems across the nation have been underinvested in. You can order a coffee by a QR code, but we were still, at CDC, getting results by fax from over 3000 different jurisdictions.
So, we at CDC are the federal agency, but we rely on a really robust public health infrastructure across the country, and that infrastructure has been underinvested in for decades.
Jessica Malaty …: You kind of took the words from my mouth when it comes to these data systems that are outdated and underfunded. A big problem with the federal response to Covid was the way data was collected, especially in those early days. There was not a federal system that could track actual case numbers, and we only really could rely on estimates. Has the CDC fixed that part of it?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: So, there are numerous pieces to the challenge, I think, that you are conveying. One is our data system. So, just to give a sense of the complexity of the data that we receive, we received data from 64 states and territories in big cities. We received data from over 3000 counties. We received data from over 574 tribes. All of those data are, A, not standardized in how they are collected, and B, they don’t come in on a common data system.
That is the hard work that we are doing in our data modernization efforts. Can we have a similar architecture by which all of the data are flowing in, so that when they are delivered to CDC, we can rapidly deliver them back to the local jurisdiction, so that they can know what’s happening around them? And we’ve made massive strides in our ability to do that. We still have a lot of work to do.
I want to separate those data highways from the other challenge that we have, and that is that we at CDC cannot compel that data come to us. We rely on voluntary reporting from state and local jurisdictions, and sometimes that reporting comes and sometimes it doesn’t. From a Covid standpoint, during a public health emergency, we have more authority to compel that those data come in, but again, they are slow. So, it makes it very hard to make smart decisions, even if you have the data systems, if the data don’t come to you.
Jessica Malaty …: Right. The cry for standardized data was probably our hallmark at the Covid Tracking Project, because we went to those states to get it individually from those state public health departments, and noticed that the lack of standardization makes it really difficult to normalize the data to make it useful for the public. Would you say that it’s the responsibility, then, for CDC to provide those federal standards, and then eventually, with congressional help, potentially compel the states to follow those standards?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: That would be what we would like to do. We are happy to convey the standards, what would be a best practice. What we can’t do is compel it, and that is actually where we really are asking help for Congress. Not because we want the data for ourselves, but we want the data so that we can swiftly deliver it back.
And you are exactly right, it is because of the lack of standardization, because of the lack of our ability to have the data come in, and because we at CDC have to be the place where the federal government received the data. We rely on the formal delivery of data through the state and local health departments, which is where we had limitations.
Jessica Malaty …: Yeah. One of the other challenges early in the pandemic, especially in kind of understanding the scale of the outbreak, was testing. Why were there so few tests?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: I think we around this country actually need a full federal effort that has collaboration with industry on scaling up testing. CDC has a responsibility to deliver a new test that is validated. What CDC’s mission is not is to deliver three million tests a day to the American people. That is not squarely within what we do in public health. We need partnerships in order to be able to do that. So, when we need tests at that scale, if CDC were to deliver the test, FDA certainly has to sign off on it, and then we need industry collaboration with commercial labs, for example, to be able to scale something at that level.
And so, this are a lot of the conversations that we’re having. How do we take a test that CDC has developed, how do we scale that up to a place where Americans can have that test at their ready? And that is more than just CDC to be engaged in those conversations.
Jessica Malaty …: Yeah, so let’s get specific about some of the legislation, then. If we were going to think about what Congress would actually have to do, and if you had your pen on that paper to write down the letters of this bill, what would it say to actually cause that change to happen? Dream big here.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Yeah, so there are a couple things. My dream here would be to have a common highway, so that when data come into us, the data can come back to you. It’s also the case that I would very much like to have a standardization in how the data are reported. Race and ethnicity, very important. Rural, urban, very important. And I think what we’ve realized through this pandemic and so many other infectious diseases is that these threats have no borders, nevermind our state borders or our county borders, even our national borders and our global borders.
So, I think that it is critically important, and people sort of have recognized that I can’t really know what’s going on around me unless I know what’s happening in the local jurisdictions around me. How does that all fit in?
Jessica Malaty …: Right. To bring it back to kind of why we had to do what we did, the Covid Tracking Project compiled this data. So I’m curious, why do you think the Covid Tracking Project had to exist, and what does that tell us about the CDC, the state of public health, the state of public health infrastructure?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: I think that in the beginning, when there is not a technology platform, a modernized platform where that data can standardly, fluidly come into your public health agency and then be compiled and compelled to come in, then you require outside sources in order to be able to do that. We did not have the public health data systems. We at CDC were receiving data from states by fax machine.
Jessica Malaty …: Yeah.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: That’s unacceptable. It’s just unacceptable in public health. So if that is how your federal public health system is receiving data, that’s the pace at which you’ll get it back. It is not standardized. It is not swift. And that is really, so much of that work of the data modernization efforts is the fluid highways that the Covid Tracking Project could put together. But we need a federal system that can do that, and that’s the work that we have ahead of us.
Jessica Malaty …: And so, I guess a follow up to that is, is the hope for the CDC to be doing that type of really granular, deep digging of that data in the next pandemic? Because we know it’s going to come.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: My vision, my gold pot here, would be that we have the resources to provide local public health, the data systems and highways so that they can create the architecture locally to be able to bring those data to us swiftly. But if we at CDC do not have the authorities to compel those data come to us, and we are responsible for the official counts that are federally reported to us, we can’t do it by hand the way your volunteers have. We have to report what officially comes in. If it doesn’t officially come in, we can’t report it back out.
Jessica Malaty …: Right.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: And that’s really where I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to convey that we don’t have those authorities, and we rely on Congress in order to give us those authorities so that we can do what you did.
Jessica Malaty …: According to the US Constitution, it is states that are responsible for public health when it comes to response to an emergency. Do you think it’s a matter of changing the 10th Amendment?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: I think that Congress could give us the authorities in order to compel these data. Most people actually don’t know that we don’t have these authorities. Even people in healthcare, even people in public health don’t recognize that we at CDC cannot compel these data to come in. Working with Congress, I think we could create authorities that would protect privacy, that would protect individuals, but that would allow us for swift and nimble public health responses that we don’t have with the data systems we have in place right now.
Jessica Malaty …: Would you say it would be better if CDC could compel states to comply with standards and reporting?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Yes, and then I think we have to have some agreed upon guardrails around it, because I recognize that we want to be trustworthy here. We do want to make sure that people feel confident and comfortable that their data are being used responsibly and without identifiers. But yes, compelling those data come in would certainly not only allow CDC to be more nimble, but allow us to give your local jurisdictions the data back. We can’t be nimble if we can’t see all of those kinds of data.
Jessica Malaty …: Yeah. Do you think the CDC is ready for the next pandemic?
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: I think we in public health are working together. We have a lot of work to do to bolster an already frail public health system, and we are actively engaged in that work, and I have a team of over 12,000 people here in this agency who are working 24/7 so that we can be better prepared the next time.
Jessica Malaty …: Thank you so much, Dr. Walensky. It was a real pleasure talking to you. We’re grateful for your transparency and for spending this time with us.
Dr. Rochelle Wa…: Thank you so much for all you do. Much appreciated.
Al Letson: That was Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, and Jessica Malaty Rivera reporting for Reveal.
The Coronavirus Pandemic is no longer a national emergency. On April 10th, President Biden signed a congressional resolution bringing it to a close after three long years. But the virus is still with us. Covid has claimed more than 4,000 American lives in the month of April. It’s a reminder of how much work there is left to do.
We talked a lot about what went wrong during the pandemic, but some things are happening that we can be hopeful about. In April, 2022, the CDC announced the launch of an always on pandemic monitoring system. The agency’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics will work like a weather forecasting service for emerging pandemics and epidemics. It was inspired in part by the work of the Covid Tracking Project. The government has committed $200 million in funding. It’s an acknowledgement that we need to do better in an era of pandemics.
Our lead producers for this week’s show are Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler. Michael I. Schiller edited the show. Jessica Malaty Rivera is the series host. Thanks to production assistance, Max Moldonato, Corey Suzuki, and Aarushi Sahejpal. Thanks also to the Covid Tracking Project at the Atlantic where it all began, and the oral history team there. This series was funded in part by Tableau from Salesforce.
Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general council. Our production manager is Steven Rascon. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando “My Man, Yo” Aruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Katherine Steyer Martinez and Claire “C Note” Mullen. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Meyers and Taki Telanitas. Artis and Kara co-executive produced and reported the series. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.