Contact Tracing: How decisions about COVID-19 were made by city and state governments

Updated 08/11/21:

The team behind the 2019-20 Magic Grant Trump Town have made a pivot, and are focusing on state and local governments and their responses to COVID-19. Derek Kravitz and his team have received thousands of pages of emails in response to a large number of very targeted FOIA requests. In these emails we see the back-and-forth behind decisions to keep the public safe in the face of the virus — decisions about whether to hold Mardi Gras, or close a Florida beach. The revelations have been published in The Washington Post, The New York Times. 

Here is a running list of reporting from Derek Kravitz and the team behind his 2019-20 Magic Grant:

Why New Orleans Pushed Ahead With Mardi Gras, Even as It Planned for Coronavirus – The New York Times, April 13, 2020

U.S. deaths soared in early weeks of pandemic, far exceeding number attributed to covid-19 – Washington Post, April 27, 2020

‘A Terrible Price’: The Deadly Racial Disparities of Covid-19 in America – The New York Times, April 29, 2020

Frustrated by Crowds, Coastal States Weigh What to Do About Beaches – The New York Times,  April 30, 2020

Florida county’s medical examiner begged officials to close beaches, internal emails reveal – Washington Post, May 3, 2020

Priorities USA targets Florida elections with lawsuit – Politico, May 5, 2020

Thermal scanner technology may not detect covid-19 infections – Washington Post, May 11, 2020

As Meatpacking Plants Reopen, Data About Worker Illness Remains Elusive – The New York Times, May 25, 2020

Secret document lists locations of Kansas coronavirus outbreaks. Here’s what it says – The Wichita Eagle, June 7, 2020

Companies, governments spending thousands on thermal cameras amid COVID-19, but do they work? – WSB-TV 2 Atlanta, June 8, 2020

Coronavirus Outbreaks Are Driven By Patchwork Protections For Front-Line Workers – Colorado Public Radio, June 25, 2020

To allow more visitors and relax rules, Nebraska nursing homes must test all workers – Omaha World Herald, July 12, 2020

Inside Trump’s Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus – The New York Times, July 18, 2020

‘Brain Drain’ And A Startup CEO: This Is How Colorado Leapt Into Coronavirus Testing – Colorado Public Radio, July 27, 2020

Thread about Four Corners, Nebraska – Twitter, July 29, 2020

Group home residents are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates but an underfunded system sets them up for greater risk – The Arizona Republic, August 1, 2020

Ahead of Trump rally, Tulsa officials were sounding alarms, emails show – The Oklahoman, August 3, 2020

July emails show Missouri health directors sharing concerns about in-person school – KMBC 9 News, August 10, 2020

How NC Chose Cooperation Over Disclosure On Meatpacking Plants With Virus Outbreaks – North Carolina Public Radio, August 11, 2020

NC chose cooperation over transparency, leaving meatpacking plant virus cases unpublished – WBTV, August 11, 2020

Facing massive backlog of uncounted COVID deaths, FL medical examiners streamline review – Miami Herald, August 14, 2020

Where Louisiana stands in its 2nd coronavirus peak: Decline, but a major test is coming up – The Times-Picayune, August 16, 2020

Few states release data about Covid-19 in the food system – Fern’s AG Insider, August 17, 2020

Georgia Gov. Reopened State While Health Care Workers Needed Millions of Masks and Gowns – The Daily Beast, August 18, 2020

As Georgia Reopened, Officials Knew of Severe Shortage of PPE for Health Workers – Kaiser Health News, August 19, 2020

Why Did 77 Ohio Inmates Die Of COVID-19, But Just 10 Pennsylvania Inmates? – WOSU Public Media, August 21, 2020

Bayer’s rejection of quick COVID-19 testing resulted in delayed isolation for migrant workers, officials say – MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, August 31, 2020

Sent Home to Die – ProPublica, September 2, 2020

Kansas reverses course, will share locations of active COVID-19 outbreaks – The Kansas City Star, September 2, 2020

As COVID-19 hit Georgia meatpacking counties, officials and industry shifted blame – Facing South, September 8, 2020

In one Michigan county, almost half the COVID-19 cases are tied to farm outbreaks – Detroit Free Press, September 22, 2020

Virus’s unseen hot zone: The American farm – Washington Post, September 24, 2020

Michigan apple harvest hinges on workers staying well in pandemic – Detroit Free Press, September 28, 2020

Confidential coronavirus outbreak data shows undisclosed incidents at prisons, workplaces, schools, meatpacking plants across Illinois – MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, October 7, 2020

Illinois Keeps a Secret List of Thousands of Coronavirus Outbreaks. Now NBC 5 Has It – NBC 5 Chicago, October 29, 2020

Two Weeks after NBC 5 Revealed Illinois’ Secret List, the State Still Won’t Release Outbreak Details – NBC 5 Chicago, November 9, 2020

Food system workers may get early access to a Covid-19 vaccine, but how should states prepare? – Food and Environment Reporting Network, November 10, 2020

Illinois governor admits factories and other workplaces are center of COVID-19 outbreaks – World Socialist Web Site, November 8, 2020

The CDC chief lost his way during COVID-19. Now his agency is in the balance – USA Today, November 11, 2020

More confidential Illinois outbreak reports show how COVID-19 spread over the summer – MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, November 23, 2020

Scores of worker Covid deaths not reported amid US regulator’s lenient approach – The Guardian, November 27, 2020

Fresno County tracks COVID-19 outbreaks at workplaces. Why keep it secret? – CalMatters, December 11, 2020

Documents show scope of Covid-19 in North Carolina meat industry – Food and Environment Reporting Network, December 11, 2020

Why few farmworkers isolate in California’s free COVID-19 hotel rooms – CalMatters, December 19, 2020

How COVID-19 ‘clobbered’ the U.P. infecting 1,400 kids in latest surge – Detroit Free Press, January 4, 2020

One Year, 400,000 Coronavirus Deaths: How the U.S. Guaranteed Its Own Failure – The New York Times, January 18, 2021

The Trump Administration told an Illinois health department to leave Rochelle Foods alone. Then a second COVID-19 outbreak struck the plant. – MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, January 18, 2021

Report says COVID cases at Rochelle Foods kept from public, plant says they followed protocol – WREX-TV, January 18, 2021

Report: COVID outbreaks in the Upper Peninsula impact frontline workers and their families – Interlochen Public Radio, January 21, 2021

In Note to Fauci, Top City Doctor Takes Shot at de Blasio’s COVID-19 Contact Tracing Program – The City, January 28, 2021

Utah officials had questions about how to react to state’s first case of COVID-19 U.K. variant, emails show – The Salt Lake City Tribune, February 1, 2021

DJI and Draganfly Tried to Use the Pandemic to Get Law Enforcement to Use More Drones – Slate, February 5, 2021

Vermont has promised equal vaccine access for people of color. Will it be enough? – VTDigger, February 7, 2021

Ten months into pandemic, Rochelle Foods and Illinois health department still at odds over COVID-19 – MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, February 9, 2021

As Biden Pushes for Racial Equity in Vaccination, Data Is Lagging – The New York Times, February 9, 2021

California left clinics off vaccine list, so low-income patients are underserved – CalMatters, February 10, 2021

Why Some States Won’t Share Race and Ethnicity Data on Vaccinations with the CDC—and Why That’s a Problem – The COVID Tracking Project, February 16, 2021

Have a case of Covid variant? No one is going to tell you – Kaiser Health News, February 24, 2021

How Do You Get Your City A Federal Mass Vaccine Site? ‘Ask Directly’ And Call It A ‘Pilot’ – WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio, February 25, 2021

At California pork plant, confusion and safety violations as Covid-19 spread – Food and Environment Reporting Network, March 8, 2021

March 12, 2020: The day the devastating effects of the COVID crisis were first seen in Cook County – Chicago Sun-Times, March 11, 2021

A year of COVID deaths: How the virus spread into every corner of Cook County – Chicago Sun-Times, March 12, 2021

Coronavirus live blog, March 12, 2021: Pritzker says Illinois could beat Biden’s May 1 vaccine goal – Chicago Sun-Times, March 12, 2021

Contact Tracers Have Tracked the Spread of COVID-19 Fatigue – Vice, March 15, 2021

One-third of Michigan prisoners are vaccinated, but staff numbers don’t tell whole story – Detroit Free Press, March 20, 2021

As COVID vaccine arrives at meat, poultry plants in NC, challenges remain to help workers – The Charlotte Observer, March 26, 2021

California’s Working-Age Latinos Are Disproportionately Dying of COVID-19 – KQED, March 30, 2021

Michigan was warned about British COVID-19 variant, but many ignored it, Detroit Free Press, April 18, 2021

Inequality’s deadly toll, Nature, April 28, 2021

CDC: Michigan taxidermist may have caught COVID-19 from infected mink, Detroit Free Press, April 29, 2021

How much do mass vaccine clinics cost to run? Up to $400,000 a day, Chicago Sun Times, May 2, 2021

Future of mass vaccination sites up in the air as demand eases, Fox 32 Chicago, May 3, 2021

How growers had to sidestep county and state programs to vaccinate farmworkers, CalMatters, May 5, 2021

Details emerge of major waste spill into creek, river from Oceana County food processor, Detroit Free Press, May 11, 2021

Biden Wants To Take On The Fossil-Fuel Industry. Dozens Of His Officials Are Invested In It, Forbes, May 11, 2021 (non-Covid piece)

‘Unique historical fear’ of Carle Health billing practices may lead some to skip COVID-19 vaccine, health officials worry, MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 12, 2021

In Hardest-Hit Parts of Alameda County, Residents Need More Vaccine Info, Access, KQED, May 21, 2021

Fentanyl Is Killing More People During the Pandemic. In Santa Clara County, Victims Are Getting Younger, KQED, May 24, 2021

A dozen counties criticized OptumServe for vaccine clinic problems, documents show, CalMatters, May 25, 2021

Fears, misinformation still fueling vaccine hesitancy in Illinois, new data shows, Chicago Sun Times, May 27, 2021

Tulare County cuts ties with OptumServe for Covid-19 vaccine clinics, Fox 26 News, May 28, 2021

Uncooperative Bay County hair stylist made tracking P.1 variant in Michigan even harder, Detroit Free Press, June 1, 2021

Top White House tech critic Tim Wu holds more than $1M in Bitcoin, Politico, June 7, 2021 (non-Covid piece)

Michigan bet big on mass vaccine events for COVID-19. It didn’t work out as hoped, USA Today, June 9, 2021

How Green Empire Farms Failed to Stop One of New York’s Biggest COVID-19 Outbreaks, Documented, June 9, 2021

1,000 inmates still stuck in county jails — creating dangerous conditions — because state prisons won’t take them, sheriffs say, Chicago Sun Times, June 27, 2021

COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for all Illinois prison employees, Chicago Sun Times, June 28, 2021

Missouri weighed vaccination lottery with ‘substantial grand prize’ amid Delta spread, The Kansas City Star, July 2, 2021

Why The San Joaquin Valley Is Home To Many Of The Nation’s Vaccine Desert, KVPR, July 9, 2021

‘Like we’re on an island’: How Missouri’s inaction allowed delta variant to spread, The Kansas City Star, July 11, 2021

COVID case cluster hits vaccinated Las Vegas hospital workers, Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 12, 2021

A Record Number of People Died From Drug Overdoses in the U.S. During the First Year of COVID-19, KQED, July 15, 2021

Missouri urges CDC to waive $25 limit for vaccine incentive plan, Missouri Indipendent, July 16, 2021

Temples To Clinics: Why COVID Vaccine Events Are Popping Up At Valley’s Sikh Gurdwara, VPR, July 23, 2021

Rare, often deadly Candida auris fungal infection identified in Oakland County man, Detroit Free Press, July 29, 2021

Researchers Find Signs of COVID-19 Mutations in NYC Sewage, Pointing to Possible Dog and Rat Infections, The City, July 29, 2021

Untested Asylum Seekers In ICE Detention Centers Pose New Health Risk Among Delta Outbreak, WWNO, August 2, 2021

In one Missouri county, coroner excludes COVID from death certificates if family asks, The Kansas City Star, August 3, 2021

Former SF Political Aide Announces End to Hunger Strike After City Leaders Pledge More Action on Drug Overdose Crisis, KQED, August 3, 2021

How misinformation, fear create ‘vaccination deserts’ in California’s Central Valley, The Fresno Bee, August 9, 2021

County health officials, wary of ‘anger mongrels,’ clash with Missouri on vaccine prizes, The Kansas City Star, August 11, 2021

Data offers glimpse of breakthrough risks for Southern Nevada workers, Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 25, 2021

‘Soooo frustrating:’ Infighting, bad predictions hindered Missouri response to Delta, Missouri Independent, October 28, 2021

Hart Island Burials Taken Over By Tree Landscapers, Uprooting Families’ Hopes for Transformation, The City, November 18, 2021

Vaccine disparities led to unnecessary deaths in Chicago, a new study finds, WBEZ Chicago, November 30, 2021

Missouri health department found mask mandates work, but didn’t make findings public, Missouri Independent, December 1, 2021

Missouri allocated $11M for vaccine gift cards. Most health departments said no thanks, Missouri Independent, December 2, 2021

Missouri finds masks effective but doesn’t release study, The Examiner, December 2, 2021

Missouri Withheld Data Showing Effectiveness of Mask Mandates, The New York Times, December 2, 2021

The US is undercounting COVID deaths, researchers say. Now they have a tool to figure out why, USA Today, December 9, 2021

Science backs mask mandates. But in Missouri and elsewhere, they’re politically toxic, Missouri Independent, December 21, 2021

Uncounted: Inaccurate death certificates across the country hide the true toll of COVID-19, USA Today, December 22, 2021

The story of Jim and Dee, the elderly couple whose deaths show how COVID fatalities can go uncounted, USA Today, December 22, 2021

Before ouster, Missouri health director drafted a letter to senators that was never sent, Missouri Independent, February 15, 2022

Missouri plotting official ‘end’ to COVID-19 pandemic as soon as March, document says, Missouri Independent, February 16, 2022

Misinformation fuels false belief that Missouri COVID death figures are being inflated, Missouri Independent, February 18, 2022

How New England caught the COVID deaths much of the country missed, The Providence Journal, February 24, 2022

Missouri spent $25 million to aid hospitals. Contract marked by no-shows, high costs, Missouri Independent, February 28, 2022

Here’s why Utah’s COVID-19 testing in schools went from national model to abandoned failure, The Salt Lake Tribune, March 7, 2022

How Did This Many Deaths Become Normal?, The Atlantic, March 8, 2022

Idaho COVID-19 surge drove patient transfers, strained out-of-state hospitals, new data shows, Idaho Capital Sun, March 16, 2022

Nearly 19,000 more deaths in Cook County: The pandemic’s toll, two years in, Chicago Sun-Times, March 23, 2022

4 Michiganders with COVID-19 strain unique to mink were likely 1st U.S. spillover cases, Detroit Free Press, April 17, 2022

The National Fight Against COVID-19 Isn’t Ready To Go To The Sewers, FiveThirtyEight, April 20, 2022

Study Shows More Equitable Vaccine Coverage Could Have Prevented Over 250 COVID-19 Deaths in Chicago, May 27, 2022

The first three articles have to do with New Orleans and discussions about whether the city  should move forward with Mardi Gras, despite the growing threat of the coronavirus in early February. The first was Kravitz’ and New York Times’ correspondent Richard Fausset’s New York Times piece “Why New Orleans Pushed Ahead With Mardi Gras, Even as It Planned for Coronavirus”, which we covered earlier this month.

After publishing the original piece, Kravitz shared the New Orleans emails with journalists at outlets including The Washington Post, recognizing the emails’ unique insight into the early days of local governments’ coronavirus response. From the article, which appeared as “U.S. deaths soared in early weeks of pandemic, far exceeding number attributed to covid-19”:

But some officials in that state say the coronavirus death toll will end up higher than is currently known, according to emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation that were shared with The Post.

In an April 4 email, New Orleans Health Director Jennifer Avegno noted a spike in paramedics’ reports of deaths on scene and of cardiac arrests requiring advanced life support, including CPR. The number of such reports in March was 24 percent higher than it had been in March 2019.

“Thus I would probably add about 15% or so to the known death toll,” she wrote to two city officials. “However — no city or state will be factoring this in or reporting it, so I don’t think we should either. We should just assume that the deaths are about 15% more than we can count, but not include them in official modeling, because we will never really know.”

The Times Magazine then used the emails to hook into a tragically gripping tale of racial disparities in Covid-19 fatalities in Louisiana, where 70% of the dead as of April 6th were African-Americans, despite making up only one third of the population. From the story: 

As Mardi Gras festivities began, bringing over a million visitors from around the world streaming into the warm, welcoming city to celebrate face to face and elbow to elbow with local residents in a progression of street parties and parades, dozens of coronavirus cases had already been documented in China, which reported its first death on Jan. 11. On Jan. 20, the first known case was confirmed in the United States: a Washington State resident who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. Behind the scenes, Louisiana health administrators had begun discussing the growing situation, seeing it as low-risk, according to emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

Finally, the most recent New York Times piece focuses on the stories behind the shocking imagery of packed beaches in some coastal states. In  “Frustrated by Crowds, Coastal States Weigh What to Do About Beaches“, the email cache from Kravitz highlighted decisions made by officials in St. John’s County to eventually close their beaches after significant public outcry.

Kravitz’ work for these and the other stories listed at the top of this blog post involved targeted records requests that the team made to local authorities in nearly every state, a large majority of which have yet to receive responses. As the aim of the project continues to evolve, the team demonstrates that expertise in crafting public records requests can have an outsized impact on coverage of phenomena like the coronavirus. This kind of reporting is best described as “the first draft of history.”