Since June, the White House Coronavirus Task Force has been compiling detailed reports on how Covid-19 is spreading. It has put together a massive, granular, timely data set for tracking and containing the pandemic. These reports would be of enormous benefit to local public health officials, educators, employers, and the public. Yet the task force refuses to share them.
Each week, it distributes this painstakingly prepared document to the governors of all 50 states and to the District of Columbia with specific recommendations for curtailing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, along with progress reports on testing and county-by-county assessments of the prevalence of the coronavirus.
But to gain access to the information in these reports, the public has had to rely on leaks, investigative journalists, and inquiries by a House subcommittee.
I started a non-partisan project called covidexitstrategy.org to track how each state is doing on critical public health measures like the spread of Covid-19, hospital system readiness, and the robustness of Covid-19 testing. We rely on volunteer efforts like The COVID Tracking Project to produce our dashboards because the official datasets from the federal government are either not shared or are not as detailed.
I — and many others — would very much like to see the Coronavirus Task Force reports made public because our country desperately needs this information. More than one million people have used our site’s dashboards, with thousands coming back more than 200 times each. The site has become a resource for federal agencies, state governments, journalists, businesses, and the public to guide reopening efforts and travel restrictions.
In mid-July, a copy of the July 14 report was leaked to the Center for Public Integrity, which then reported that 18 states were in the Covid-19 “red zone,” with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people, something that neither the Centers for Disease Control, the department of Health and Human Services, or the Trump administration has shared with the public. Later that month, the New York Times, based on an updated leaked report, warned that 21 states were in the red zone.
After this second leak, access to the full reports was further tightened to prevent future leaks.
On August 10, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for these weekly reports. I received an acknowledgment of my filing and when I asked for an estimated date of completion, I was told June 16, 2023 — 999 days from the day this article was published.
In each case, national and local news outlets dispersed the critical public health information carried within the task force reports. But the public should not have to rely on leaks to get this information.
The Trump administration is deliberately restricting these reports from the public, and it’s clear why: they contradict the president, who continually downplays the spread and impact of the virus.
On August 31, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released eight task force reports, from June 23 to August 9, based on a request the committee made to Vice President Mike Pence and White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx. The chairman of the subcommittee, James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), said in a statement, “Rather than being straight with the American people and creating a national plan to fix the problem, the President and his enablers kept these alarming reports private while publicly downplaying the threat to millions of Americans.”
The reports do more than include Covid-19 statistics. They also include recommendations for public health actions that challenge the lax approach some governors are taking, such as Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, who continues to refuse to adopt a statewide mask mandate even though a task force report declares “current mitigation efforts are not having a sufficient impact and would strongly recommend a statewide mask mandate.”
The reports show indisputably that the coronavirus is spreading uncontrolled across much of the country. They confirm the need for specific interventions, such as universal adoption of masks in public, closing bars and gyms, limiting gatherings, increasing access to testing, accelerating test results, and deploying a multitude of contact tracers.
Public health crises require federal, state, and local governments, along with people in the community, to respond together. Conflicting or secret information undermines that unity and delays critical actions. We are fighting a virus that spreads exponentially. Each day of inaction results in more cases, more hospitalizations, and, unfortunately, more deaths. To beat this virus, we need everyone working from the same trusted source of facts.
In addition to the weekly task force report, HHS assembles 200 datasets into a system called HHS Protect to coordinate the federal response. The system has “comprehensive visibility” into Covid-19 case counts; hospital capacity, utilization, and inventory; diagnostic lab testing data; testing locations; and more. So far, though, only one dataset — the hospital utilization snapshot — has been made public on the HHS Protect website.
When a hurricane nears, the federal government provides leadership by collecting, aggregating, and rapidly disseminating information from satellites, weather stations, and specialized aircraft. This allows the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make and share accurate predictions of the storm’s intensity and direction.
Like a hurricane, a virus has no respect for borders or state lines. We must demand that all data regarding the Covid-19 response that is assembled by the Coronavirus Task Force and HHS be shared with everyone. A public crisis requires a unified public response. A unified public response requires public data.
Ryan Panchadsaram is the co-founder of covidexitstrategy.org and United States Digital Response. He works at Kleiner Perkins and was formerly the deputy chief technology officer for the United States.