I am once again asking: why are journalists doing this?

President Trump and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19 in the early morning on Friday, October 2. As I draft this newsletter on Sunday morning, at least 15 other people connected to the President have tested positive, ranging from Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, to New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Shear.

You might expect me to source this number and these names from a federal public health agency, which is conducting all of these tests and making their results public. Not in this pandemic! My source is, of course, a dashboard compiled by volunteer journalists and science communicators.

This dashboard, called the COVID-19 At The White House Contact Tracker, is attempting to trace over 200 contacts in connection with the President and his staff. The team behind it includes Benjy Renton, independent reporter on COVID-19 in higher education, Peter Walker, data visualization lead at the COVID Tracking Project, and Jesse O’Shea, MD, infectious disease expert at Emory University.

The Contact Tracker is an incredible public service. In its current form, the dashboard lists 235 White House contacts who should get tested for COVID-19, along with their positions, test results (if known), symptoms (if they test positive), and the date of their most recent test. You can also view the data as a timeline, based on each person’s last contact with the President, and as a map based on the Rose Garden ceremony, the debate, and two other potential spreading events.

It is not surprising, after months of poor data reporting from the federal government that, instead of the CDC or the HHS, the best source of data on this high-profile outbreak is—as Dr. O’Shea puts it— “three awesome dudes [contact tracing] from our homes.” But it is worth emphasizing.

What are federal public health agencies prioritizing right now, you might ask? The HHS is planning a $300 million-plus ad campaign with the goal of “defeating despair” about the coronavirus. And this money came out of the CDC’s budget. I was planning to devote a bigger section to this campaign before COVID-19 hit the White House, but instead, I will direct you to an excellent (and terrifying) POLITICO feature on the subject. Dan Diamond also discusses his investigation of the campaign on his podcast, POLITICO’s Pulse Check.

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