Good afternoon only to the reporters on last Wednesday’s White House COVID-19 press call who told Dr. Anthony Fauci that he was on mute.
And yes, you read that right: the White House is doing regular COVID-19 press calls again! With Dr. Fauci! Who is now President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor on COVID-19! And CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky! And chair of Biden’s health equity task force Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith!
Okay, that’s enough exclamation points. The briefings, which will be held three times a week, provide data-driven updates on the state of the pandemic and allow journalists to ask hard questions of the Biden administration’s response. In addition to the scientific experts, briefings so far have featured White House advisors/COVID-19 coordinators Jeff Zients and Andy Slavitt, who can speak to the more logistical aspects of the administration’s actions.
This is, essentially, what a responsible federal government should have been doing since January 2020. But after a year of the Trump administration’s confusion, lack of coordination, and outright lies, it’s refreshing to watch a White House COVID-19 briefing in which every statement doesn’t need to be rigorously fact-checked in real-time.
Besides the press briefings, here are a couple of moves the Biden team made this week that underscore the new administration’s commitment to better (and more transparent) COVID-19 data:
- Publicly releasing the COVID-19 State Profile Reports: Since last spring, the White House COVID-19 Task Force has regularly compiled detailed reports to help national and state leaders respond to the pandemic. The reports include COVID-19 data for states, counties, and cities, along with specific assessments on where governors and state public health officials should focus their efforts in order to control the virus’ spread. In late December, the data behind these reports were released to the public; here’s a CDD post with more info on that release. Biden’s COVID-19 Task Force has kept the data releases going, and this week, they also shared the PDF reports themselves. What’s more, new White House COVID-19 Data Director Cyrus Shahpar made this release his first Tweet on his new official account—and he thanked public advocates for these data, such as the Center for Public Integrity’s Liz Essley Whyte and COVID Exit Strategy’s Ryan Panchadsaram. The release indicates a new commitment to data transparency that we did not see from Trump’s White House for the majority of his tenure.
- Updating the CDC’s COVID-19 dashboard: The CDC has been building out a COVID-19 tracker since the spring, featuring data on cases, testing, vulnerable populations, and (since December) vaccination. But it got a major upgrade this week: the dashboard now has a curated landing page and a sidebar menu that makes it much easier for users to see all the available data. This dashboard also now includes those State Profile Reports I mentioned above, making it easy for users to find information about their regions. And, under the “Your Community” label, you’ll also find an interactive COVID-19 vulnerability index: select your county, and the map will show you how susceptible you are to the pandemic based on your community’s current infection rate, testing, population demographics, health disparities, and more.
- More lead time for vaccine distribution: Last week, I discussed how unpredictable vaccine shipments from the federal government were making it difficult for states—and by extension, local public health departments and individual providers—to coordinate their dose administration. Biden’s team improved the situation this week by giving states their shipment numbers three weeks in advance. The extended lead time will allow vaccine providers to plan out appointments and coordinate other logistics in order to ensure all doses are used. Both the CDC’s Pfizer and Moderna distribution datasets were most recently updated on January 26, with allocation numbers for January 25 and February 1.
- Stepping up the genomic surveillance: In both of this week’s White House COVID-19 briefings, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced that the agency is actively looking for new SARS-CoV-2 variants by working with local and international partners. She gave some specifics in Friday’s briefing: “We are now asking for surveillance from every single state,” she said, requiring states to sequence 750 strains each week. Collaborations with both commercial labs and research universities will take the surveillance to thousands of strains per week. As Sarah Braner wrote earlier in January, such surveillance is key to understanding how prevalent the new—and more contagious—coronavirus strains are in the U.S., as well as to detecting future strains that may become a threat in the coming months.
It looks like the CDC may be on its way to adapting its current dashboard into the Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard that Biden promised in his transition plan. But I, for one, am trying not to get too comfortable. The statements still need to be fact-checked, and the hard questions need to be asked. Biden’s team is making the bare minimum look nice—albeit with a few Zoom glitches.
As I look forward into my coverage of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response, and its healthcare policies more broadly, I’m thinking about this quote from Chris La Tray in his most recent newsletter issue, “Same as it Ever Was”:
“I’m already sick of all the white liberal people humping each other’s legs every time Biden does something that is simply his damn job. “It’s so nice to have a president that….” Blech. Puke. There is copious lingering accountability to be addressed and Joe goddamn Biden is neck deep in it. We are not going back to anything that resembles the last 40 years of his political career, our only way is forward.”
Our only way is forward. To end this pandemic, to prepare for the next one.
- New wastewater surveillance report highlights need for expansion, standardizationThis week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a major report about the state of wastewater surveillance for infectious diseases in the U.S. The report, written by a committee of top experts (and peer-reviewed before its release), is an extensive description of the promise and the challenges of wastewater testing.
- Looking ahead to the big COVID-19 stories of 2023As someone who’s been reporting on COVID-19 since the beginning, a new year is a good opportunity to parse out what feels like an eternity of pandemic reporting. So this week, I reflected on the major trends and topics I hope to cover in 2023—both building on my work from prior years and taking it in new directions.
- How official death data underestimate COVID-19’s inequitiesIn the last week of December, I had a major story published at MuckRock, USA TODAY, and local newsrooms in Arizona, Oregon, and Texas. The story explains that official COVID-19 statistics underestimate the pandemic’s true toll—particularly on people of color, who are more likely to have their deaths inaccurately represented in mortality data.
- COVID source callout: CDC archives public datasetsThe CDC is now updating its COVID-19 cases and deaths data weekly, instead of daily. This shift goes beyond the agency’s public dashboard: the CDC has also archived datasets with state- and county-level data providing COVID-19 cases and deaths.