Can Biden clean up America’s COVID-19 data?

President Biden signing executive orders related to COVID-19 on January 21. Screenshot via the White House’s livestream.

Shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the official White House website got a makeover. It now hosts the president’s priorities and COVID-19 plan—including a promise to create a “Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard.”

I wrote about this promise in November, when it first appeared on Biden’s transition plan website. The promise hasn’t changed since then:

Create the Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard that Americans can check in real-time to help them gauge whether local transmission is actively occurring in their zip codes. This information is critical to helping all individuals, but especially older Americans and others at high risk, understand what level of precaution to take.

We don’t have a clear timeline for this dashboard yet, of course, much less details on what it will include. But the foundation was laid this week: Biden released a detailed national COVID-19 plan and signed 30 executive orders—three of which are directly related to tracking the pandemic.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be closely watching to see how the Biden administration follows through on these plans. Will the new administration build on the strengths of existing federal and state data systems, or will it tear down old systems and sow unnecessary confusion?

What Biden is promising:

  • A Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard: We covered this one already. Biden’s national strategy document specifies that the federal government will track cases, testing, vaccinations, and hospital admissions—and will “make real-time information available.” The “real-time” promise here is worth highlighting, as real-time pandemic data do not actually exist; every metric from cases to vaccinations has its own lag based on reporting and data-sharing technologies. (COVID-19 deaths, in particular, may be reported weeks after they occur.) Still, the federal government is already tracking all of these metrics. The Biden team’s goal, then, is to consolidate them into an easily accessible dashboard that is widely used by everyone from county public health leaders to elementary school teachers.
  • Coordinated federal data collection: One of Biden’s executive orders, signed on January 21, requires several federal agencies to “designate a senior official” who will lead that agency’s COVID-19 data collection. The officials must both coordinate with each other and make data public. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary will review the national public health data systems and figure out how to increase their efficiency and accuracy. (Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick for HHS secretary, hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate yet; will this review need to wait until he officially starts the position?)
  • A focus on equity: Another Biden executive order promises to address the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on people of color and other minority communities. The executive order specifically calls out a lack of standardized COVID-19 data on these communities, saying this data gap has “hampered efforts to ensure an equitable pandemic response.” Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force will be required to address this data gap by coordinating with federal agencies—both expanding data collection for underserved populations right now and making recommendations to prevent this issue in future public health crises. This task is easier said than done, though; a recent STAT News article called using data to ensure vaccination equity one of the biggest challenges Biden faces as he takes office.
  • School data collection: Last week, I wrote that there was no mention of data-gathering in Biden’s K-12 COVID-19 plan. Well, maybe someone from his team reads the COVID-19 Data Dispatch, because his executive order on supporting school reopening requires data collection in two areas: data to inform safe reopening of K-12 schools, and data to understand the pandemic’s impact on students and educators. I would have liked to see a more specific promise to track COVID-19 cases, tests, and student enrollment in public schools, but this is a good start.
  • Data-based briefings: Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that the administration would hold regular briefings with health officials, “with data.” Ideally, such briefings should explain trends in COVID-19 data and put numbers into context for the Americans watching at home.

The promises are, well, promising.  And I’m rooting for President Biden!  Seriously!  My job would be way easier if I could just give you all updates using one centralized dashboard each week.  But I’ve spent enough time hacking through the weeds of this country’s highly confusing, irregular data systems to know that the new president can’t just flip a switch and make a nationwide pandemic dashboard magically appear on whitehouse.gov.

If anyone from the Biden administration is reading this, hello!  Please put me on all your press lists!  And here’s what this data reporter would, personally, like to see you focus on.

What I want to see:

  • Don’t break what we already have: Or, build on the existing federal data systems (and dashboards) rather than creating something entirely new. Last week, Alexis Madrigal published a feature in The Atlantic advocating for the new administration to keep COVID-19 hospitalization data under its current HHS control rather than transferring this responsibility back to the CDC. I’ve covered the HHS’s hospitalization data extensively in the CDD, but this feature really paints a cohesive picture of the dataset—from its turbulent, politically charged beginnings to its current, comprehensive, trustworthy format. The story is worth a read. And on a similar note, I’ve been glad to see federal data sources like the CDC’s dashboard and the Community Profile Reports, continue to update on their usual schedules. Biden’s team should seek to improve upon these systems and make them easier to access, not start from scratch.
  • More public metadata: When the federal government has put out large data releases in recent months, responsibility has largely fallen on journalists and other outside communicators to make those releases accessible. I’ve done some of that work in this publication and at the COVID Tracking Project. But it shouldn’t really be my job—the federal agencies that put out these datasets should be releasing FAQ documents, holding press calls, and generally making themselves available to help out researchers and communicators who want to use their data.  
  • Count the rapid tests: Since August, I’ve called on the federal public health agencies to release national data on antigen tests and other types of rapid tests. A recent article in The Atlantic by Whet Moser makes clear that data for these tests are still widely unavailable. Moser writes that antigen test numbers are not reported at the federal level, and at the state level, such reporting is highly fractured and inconsistent; as a result, about three-quarters of the antigen tests that the federal government has distributed are unaccounted for in public data. The HHS should focus on tracking these tests as comprehensively as it has tracked PCR tests, and it should make the numbers publicly available.
  • Survey the genomes: Another massive challenge that the U.S. faces right now is keeping track of the SARS-CoV-2 variants that are circulating through the population, some of which may be more contagious or more life-threatening. As Sarah Braner reported two weeks ago, the majority of COVID-19 cases aren’t genomically sequenced, making it difficult for us to know how many of those cases are new strains as opposed to the regular coronavirus that we’ve all come to know and hate over the past year. Biden’s health and science leadership should make it a priority to step up the nation’s genetic sequencing game, and all of those data should be publicly shared.
  • Support the local public health agencies: Nationwide data coordination is obviously important, and is something that’s been desperately needed since last spring. But most of the COVID-19 data work—logging test results, standardizing those test results, sending them to a central location—is done by state and local public health officials. Local public health agencies, in particular, have been under-funded and threatened by partisan policies since before the pandemic started. To truly improve COVID-19 data collection, the Biden administration must provide support to these local agencies in the form of funding, personnel, technology, and truly anything else they need right now.

When Biden’s nationwide pandemic dashboard does drop, you’d better believe I’ll be giving it a comprehensive review. For now, if you want to see how well Biden’s doing at keeping his campaign trail promises, I recommend checking out Politifact’s Biden Promise Tracker.

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