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

Updated 05/27/20.

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 – New York Times, May 25, 2020

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.”