We’re still thinking about pandemic data in the wrong ways.
A few minutes before midnight on March 4, 2020, the two of us emailed every U.S. state and the District of Columbia with a simple question: How many people have been tested in your state, total, for the coronavirus?
By then, about 150 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States, and 11 had died of the disease. Yet the CDC had stopped publicly reporting the number of Americans tested for the virus. Without that piece of data, the tally of cases was impossible to interpret—were only a handful of people sick? Or had only a handful of people been tested? To our shock, we learned that very few Americans had been tested.
The consequences of this testing shortage, we realized, could be cataclysmic. A few days later, we founded the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic with Erin Kissane, an editor, and Jeff Hammerbacher, a data scientist. Every day last spring, the project’s volunteers collected coronavirus data for every U.S. state and territory. We assumed that the government had these data, and we hoped a small amount of reporting might prod it into publishing them.