The challenge of finding data on COVID-19 testing and school openings

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Dodger Stadium testing site

Photo: Chris Yarzab via Flickr

There is no federal standardized dataset on COVID-19, testing and school reopenings, making it challenging for journalists to report a national perspective of the pandemic.

Filling in the void are efforts created by journalists, such as the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Other sources include nonprofit organizations like the Kaiser Family Foundation and academic groups that include the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.

“The problem is that early on, every state was left to fend for themselves,” said Betsy Ladyzhets, author of the data newsletter COVID-19 Data Dispatch, “So every state has its own set of data and its own way of reporting it and its own definitions. It’s like dealing with 50 different countries.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does host a version of a national dataset called the Protect Public Data Hub and a downloadable file of patient impact and hospital capacity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posts some national and state data on its COVID Data Tracker Page.

Still, as Ladyzhets notes in a new “How I Did It” Q&A for AHCJ, the datasets aren’t comprehensive, as they often don’t include all the types of COVID-19 tests now being used around the country.

Betsy Ladyzhets

Betsy Ladyzhets

“We at the COVID Tracking Project are the only national site comprehensively tracking testing and relaying it to the public,” said Ladyzhets, who is one of the hundreds of journalists volunteering at the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Other volunteers of the site ― begun this spring by two journalists from the Atlantic, and a venture investor ― include scientists, developers, and others interested in data gathering.

At about 5 p.m. Eastern time daily, the project tweets the latest COVID-19 testing figures, as well as provides commentary on trends that its volunteers are observing from the data. They also provide a comprehensive set of demographic data, the COVID-19 Racial Data Tracker ― broken out by race and ethnicity ― that has helped the public understand the extent of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black, Latinx and Native American communities.

“All the states report some race and ethnicity data, but it’s still pretty spotty,” said Ladyzhets, who volunteers specifically to work on the racial data tracker. “New York state, for example, reports deaths based on race and ethnicity, but not cases.”

When she isn’t volunteering at the tracking project and writing her newsletter, Ladyzhets is a research associate at Stacker, a New York City publication that creates slide shows to contextualize data.

Most recently, her newsletter focused on a lack of a nationalized dataset regarding school openings and COVID-19. Ladyzhets has amassed a trove of information on sites that the public can use to assess what’s happening at K-12 school districts as well as college campuses.

Check out our Q&A for more information about her work and how she does it.

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