2020-21 Magic Grant Profile: Documenting COVID-19

Our 2020-21 Magic Grant Documenting COVID-19 began as a 2019-2020 Magic Grant that shifted its focus to reporting on how local governments were responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. The team has continued its work, issuing targeted Freedom of Information Act requests to build a nationwide repository of Covid-19 related emails between city, county, and state officials. So far, the project has requested records from more than 200 agencies in 44 states, and received 250 document sets from 44 states totaling more than 50,000 pages and hundreds of attachments, in data and PDF forms. The Documenting COVID-19 project makes the full document sets searchable and available to news organizations, academics and the public. This project is funded, in part, by a gift from PBS FRONTLINE.

This post is part of a series of interviews with our current 2020-21 Magic Grants. Since we are back in Magic Grant application season we want to showcase some of the great work our current grantees are doing and encourage you to consider applying for a Magic Grant. Here’s the link to the call for proposals, and to our FAQ. And here’s the link to the application itselfapplications are due May 1.

Here’s a (lightly) edited version of the interview with Derek Kravitz, the lead researcher in the project.

What is the Documenting COVID-19 project? And where are focusing your efforts?

The Documenting COVID-19 project examines decision-making about the virus by state and local officials in the face of incomplete or uncertain information.

Through thousands of public records requests, the Documenting COVID-19 project has compiled more than 250 document sets across 44 states, including internal emails, memoranda and health metrics from local and state governments — specifically health departments, school districts and governor’s offices. We have found that many of the most important milestones in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic are centered on simple up-and-down decisions by elected officials, oftentimes in conflict with the accepted guidance from public health experts.

One of the main aims of your project is to serve as a public repository of COVID-19 data. Can you expand on this?

The Documenting COVID-19 project has built a public clearinghouse to share the records with newsrooms and the public. We have collaborated with 30 newsrooms on 65 different investigative stories in 2020 and 2021, focusing on six different subject areas: the impact on the virus on food-processing and meatpacking plants and migrant farms; the virus’s spread in schools and colleges; racial and ethnic disparities and data gaps at both the state and federal level; the use of predictive algorithms and tools in combating the virus; and county and state medical examiner data, exploring the disproportionate impacts of the virus on different communities across the U.S.

What have been some of the major outcomes of your work?

Three of our stories — detailing classified outbreak and epidemiological data from Illinois, Kansas and North Carolina — have resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of outbreak locations. In other cases, our stories have resulted in smaller, but no less meaningful, change: back pay for sickened meatpacking plant workers in Michigan; a new housing initiative in California for infected migrant farmworkers, after the first governor-backed program fell short of its lofty goals; for the first time, case and death counts at food-processing plants in rural North Carolina and Colorado.

Can you describe your process?

Our process involves selecting specific settings — often informed by examining current hot spots of the virus across the U.S. — and then making targeted public records requests to the relevant city, county and state authorities to uncover how decisions were made. We then perform a detailed review of the documents we receive and report out the stories we find, conducting interviews and more research, often with a partner journalistic outlet that will eventually publish the story. The internal deliberations of elected officials — spelled out over email and text messages, and buttressed by our reporting — gives us the clearest, most detailed picture of what has worked, and what hasn’t, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What have you found? Any insights into how different government bodies are tackling the COVID-19 outbreak?

Oftentimes, the decisions by local government officials have led to dangerous outcomes that are only now being fully understood. In Florida, internal policy memos showed that county managers ultimately made the decision on whether or not to reopen beaches in late April, ignoring the dire pleading from the local medical examiner who was overwhelmed with a surging number of deaths. In New Orleans, we uncovered that it was the mayor and local health department director who chose to brush off an ultimately prescient concern from the city’s police force about Mardi Gras becoming a so-called “super spreader” event. In Kansas and North Carolina, we found that county leaders, and ultimately the state health departments, made the choice to prioritize their relationships with meatpacking plants in favor of proactively disclosing the names of plants where COVID-19 outbreaks had occurred. Both states ultimately reversed at least some of their outbreak disclosure policies in response to our partnered stories with the Kansas City Star and the North Carolina Watchdog Cooperative.

In Georgia and Colorado, we documented how the governors of those states chose to push ahead with reopening plans, despite warnings from their own public health experts about widespread shortages of testing kits and protective equipment for first responders. Among the documents we requested from Illinois was a confidential list of outbreaks infecting 43,000 people across the state, maintained by the Illinois Department of Public Health. The data details thousands of outbreaks in schools, restaurants, offices, jails, churches, and even small parties. Because of our reporting, the Illinois governor and the state’s health department have changed their policy and now release outbreak info by location type.

In Michigan, we focused on the state’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers, some 45,000 people, and we helped uncover 46 undisclosed COVID-19 outbreaks in food processing plants and migrant camps. We also found that several counties had concerns about outbreaks in farms long before the state mandated testing. Our reporting partner, the Detroit Free Press, subsequently found that migrant workers at one larger employer were given “pandemic reimbursement assistance” in response to our story.

A monthslong investigation with CalMatters and the Salinas Californian published in December showed how a housing program started by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to isolate infected farmworkers and improve their disproportionately high mortality rates has been a failure, resulting in just 80 hotel stays. State officials had forecast the program would house thousands and help stem coronavirus surges in the hard-hit Central Valley. Newsom’s office has pledged to reevaluate the program in response to our story.

What comes next?

We’ve spent months combing through local health department data, internal emails and memos and contact tracing notes from across Michigan for this investigation on the front page of today’s Detroit Free Press — a 4,000-word chronology of how the more transmissive U.K. variant of the coronavirus ravaged Michigan. The thousands of documents used for this story, from the state health department and seven counties, can be found here. Among the findings:
  • A second lockdown of the University of Michigan was rejected by the county health department in Ann Arbor in late January, after the state attorney general noted the potential for a lawsuit, over the objection of the county commission chair who feared the virus would soon become out of control;
  • Employees at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility flouted state quarantine guidelines and went back to work, and infected their family members and the community in the process. In one case, an employee infected with the U.K. variant passed it to her 81-year-old mother, who died in mid-February;
  • Parents of high school athletes pleaded with local health departments to reduce quarantine times for their children, leading a group of public health officials to lobby the state for tougher rules. It took the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services six weeks, until early April, to institute tougher quarantine rules, from 10 to 14 days, after the small, hard-hit Ionia County put in place their own rule in late February.

This spirit of collaboration reflects the ethos of nonprofit journalism at its best: faced with limited resources and furloughed staffers, a once-in-a-generation public health crisis and costly and time-consuming investigative reporting projects, newsrooms desperately need our help, with no strings attached. We plan to continue the Documenting COVID-19 project, with grant support, until the pandemic ends.