As 2021 comes to a close, I want to dedicate this final issue of the year to all of the other science, health, and data journalists who have continued following COVID-19 in the last twelve months. It hasn’t been easy, as burnout dovetails with declining public interest in pandemic news; still, so many people have stuck with this beat and brought important issues to light.
Here’s my list of the 21 best COVID-19 data stories of 2021. Disclaimer: this list is not comprehensive or objective—I selected these stories from my own readings of national and local outlets, combined with a couple of reader submissions. Still, I tried to include a variety of publications and story types, ranging from short news pieces to large investigative projects.
If you’d like to check out my 2020 list, you can find it here.
- The “Good” Metric Is Pretty Bad: Why It’s Hard to Count the People Who Have Recovered from COVID-19 (COVID Tracking Project, Jan. 13): This analysis post illuminates the issues behind tracking “recovered” COVID-19 patients, a metric that used to appear on many state dashboards. Amanda French and Quang Nguyen explore the inconsistent definitions that states use to track this metric—most COVID-19 metrics are inconsistent from one source to another, but “recovery” is particularly inconsistent—as well as how the metric excludes Long COVID patients. The post also explains why CTP removed many “recovered” values from its website.
- As Covid vaccine rollout expands, Black Americans still left behind (KHN/NBC, Jan. 29): While vaccines became more widely available throughout the early months of 2021, the CDC’s data on which Americans were getting vaccinated remained extremely limited. In fact, the agency has never released demographic vaccination data at the state-by-state level. KHN reporters Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber filled that gap by compiling data from state dashboards, while also reporting on the vaccine gap between Black and white Americans.
- As governor cherry-picked data, the pandemic took a toll on Florida Sunshine laws (Miami Herald, March 2): Throughout the pandemic, Florida has attracted attention—from Governor Ron DeSantis railing against mandates to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) replacing its comprehensive COVID-19 dashboard with stripped-down weekly reports in June. This important Miami Herald article sheds light on FDOH’s reluctance to “release new data related to COVID-19 that contradicts the governor’s upbeat narrative,” hurting journalists’ and academics’ ability to hold the DeSantis administration accountable.
- The uncounted: People who are homeless are invisible victims of Covid-19 (STAT News, March 11): Usha Lee McFarling, national science correspondent at STAT News, has spent the year reporting on equity issues connected to COVID-19 and other areas of medicine. In this story, she investigates the lack of COVID-19 deaths reported among homeless populations. According to McFarling, one attempt to track these deaths resulted in a count of under 400, even though homeless shelters are prime locations for outbreaks.
- Why the Pandemic Experts Failed (The Atlantic, March 15): On March 7, the COVID Tracking Project updated its datasets for the last time. Shortly afterwards, founders Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer wrote this story sharing lessons learned from a year of data collection, including the challenges of reporting COVID-19 data, the impact of America’s fractured public health systems, and what data can and can’t tell us. For more: check out the project’s analysis posts with further lessons and resources for using federal COVID-19 data.
- 3.9 million years (Vox, March 17): Typically, when we think about the losses of COVID-19, we think of the number of deaths. But there’s another metric we can use, beautifully explored in this Vox article: years of potential life lost. As of January 31, 2021, the U.S. has recorded about 420,000 deaths, amounting to 3.9 million years lost. The article includes an illustration of this toll, as well as personal stories from the family members of those who died.
- We Ran Tests on Every State’s COVID-19 Vaccine Website (The Markup, March 24): The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates big tech, is famous for its Blacklight tool, which scans websites for user-tracking technologies. In this story, The Markup ran that Blacklight tool on state websites built for users to make their vaccination appointments. The tool found that many sites had below-average privacy ratings and poor accessibility, likely contributing to the stress that many Americans felt in trying to book their vaccinations.
- A Tiny Number of People Will Be Hospitalized Despite Being Vaccinated. We Have to Learn Why. (ProPublica, April 14): ProPublica’s Caroline Chen was writing about breakthrough infections before it was cool—or, before Delta hit the U.S. and these infections became common. This article clearly explains what breakthrough infections are, why they’re so rare (at the time), and why they need to be investigated anyway, as scientists hope to find patterns in the breakthrough cases that lead to severe disease. At the time, many states were doing a poor job of data collection; this is still true, many months later.
- The First Billion Doses (Bloomberg, April 24): Since late 2020, a group of Bloomberg health and data journalists have run the most comprehensive dashboard on global COVID-19 vaccinations, including data from 184 countries and all U.S. states. It’s an immense undertaking, and has driven plenty of important reporting on vaccine rollouts nationally and globally—such as this story marking the first billion doses administered. The piece both celebrates this scientific achievement and highlights inequities: “Vaccine access so far has been determined by national wealth,” the story says.
- COMIC: For my job, I check death tolls from COVID. Why am I numb to the numbers? (NPR, April 25): This comic, by one of the reporters behind NPR’s COVID-19 dashboard, resonated deeply with me. It explores why one death may feel like a tragedy, but 500,000 deaths may feel like a natural part of the world. The comic ends by emphasizing the importance of reading individual people’s stories and maintaining connection, to cope with all of the trauma and loss of the past two years.
- Broken system can’t keep track of Native deaths (Indian Country Today, June 8): In this story, the Indigenous Investigative Collective explores how a “labyrinthian system of local, state, federal and tribal data-reporting systems” makes it difficult to accurately track how many Native Americans have died of COVID-19. As a result, the already-high official death toll is likely a significant undercount; and the problem goes beyond COVID-19 to other health issues.
- New CDC dataset showing COVID vaccine-by-county numbers misses the entire state of Texas. Why? (Houston Chronicle, June 23): For a long time, there was a Texas-shaped hole in the CDC’s dataset of COVID-19 vaccinations by county. This article, by Houston Chronicle reporter Kirkland An, digs into the issue and explains: a unique state law in Texas restricts sharing of individual data, including the anonymized vaccination records that the CDC requested from states in order to calculate county-level vaccination rates. To me, this is a great example of a local reporter diving into an issue that their region is facing in a national dataset. (And the data issue has since been fixed!)
- How Local Reporters in India Exposed the Pandemic’s True Death Toll (Global Investigative Journalism Network, June 28): This one is a bit meta: it’s an article about COVID-19 death investigations, carried out by journalists in India during the country’s severe spring 2021 surge. One reporter, Yogen Joshi, used counts of Hindu funeral rituals at a holy riverbed site to reveal that the true number of deaths in the state of Gujarat was much higher than the official record stated. Other journalists similarly investigated body counts and death certificates directly, showing how national data fell short.
- Meet the people who warn the world about new covid variants (MIT Technology Review, July 26): MIT Technology Review’s Pandemic Technology Project has produced a number of important COVID-19 stories this year (including my own!), but this one is my personal favorite. Cat Ferguson profiled a group of scientists who created and contributed to the Pango system for tracking coronavirus variants, racing to name and classify new sequences as soon as they’re uploaded into the public domain. This article demonstrates the human toll of running such an important database, particularly when it’s led by PhD students and postdocs who never anticipated the scale their project would attain.
- Inside America’s Covid-reporting breakdown (POLITICO, Aug. 15): At this point, most COVID-19 reporters are familiar with the challenges underlying our spotty pandemic numbers: public health agencies have long been underfunded, records are transmitted by fax and mail, data systems are inconsistent, workers are overwhelmed, etc. But few articles lay out the problems as clearly as this feature by POLITICO’s Erin Banco, who spoke to health officials in more than 20 states. The article also includes great data visualizations and graphics that illustrate the issues.
- Ahead Of NYC School Reopening, 1,500 Classrooms Still Undergoing Ventilation Repairs (Gothamist/WNYC, Aug. 30): By mid-2020, there was a growing scientific consensus that the coronavirus spreads through the air, and ventilation is an important means of increasing COVID-19 safety. Yet businesses and news cycles alike failed to focus on ventilation well into 2021—so I was very excited to see Gothamist’s thorough investigation of air filtration in New York City schools. This article is part one in an extensive series, combining city records with expert insights on air quality standards.
- How did a Kansas grandmother just become the first U.S. COVID death? Not even her family knew until this week (The Mercury News, Sept. 2): Sometimes, the best kind of data story is an investigation into one singular data point. This piece, published in Bay Area newspaper The Mercury News, tells the story of Lovell Brown, a senior in Leavenworth County, Kansas who is now the first recorded COVID-19 death in the U.S.—after her death certificate was amended in May 2021 to include the disease. While the exact reasons behind this death certificate update are unknown, the revision suggests that the coronavirus was spreading in the Kansas City area well before official data collection started.
- The fight to manufacture COVID vaccines in lower-income countries (Nature, Sept. 15): As someone who has been writing about global health long before COVID-19 hit, Amy Maxmen is an expert on the global vaccination beat. This story lays out the immense gap between vaccine access in high-income countries and low-income countries, while also explaining a potential solution: many manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries are ready to produce COVID-19 vaccines, if only they could get ahold of the patents. I’ve come back to reread this piece several times in the past few months, as booster shot campaigns in the U.S. and elsewhere have further exacerbated vaccine inequity.
- Opening Project conclusion: 11 lessons from the schools that safely reopened (COVID-19 Data Dispatch, Sept. 19): Yes, I snuck one of my own projects onto this list: the Opening Project, in which I identified and profiled five school communities that brought the majority of their students back to in-person learning by the end of the 2020-2021 school year while reporting fewer COVID-19 cases than the national average. For me, this project was a departure from past data journalism stories; instead of describing an overall trend with data, I focused on five outliers, investigating why they were successful. The project, which was funded with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, was republished at several education and science news outlets.
- Covid response hampered by population data glitches (Financial Times, Oct. 11): Vaccination rates—which show the percentage of a population that’s received at least one vaccine dose or been fully vaccinated—have been a key metric driving government COVID-19 responses in the past year. But when the population data underlying these calculations are inaccurate, this article by Oliver Barnes and John Burn-Murdoch explains, the vaccination rates can be way off. For example, some Miami, Florida ZIP codes have vaccination rates of over 200% among seniors, because snowbirds who don’t formally reside in the city got vaccinated there. (If you hit the Financial Times’ paywall, you can read my summary of the piece here.)
- Uncounted: Inaccurate death certificates across the country hide the true toll of COVID-19 (Documenting COVID-19 & USA Today, Dec. 22): For months, the Documenting COVID-19 team has worked with several USA Today newsrooms to investigate unreported COVID-19 deaths. While the official COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. is about 800,000, experts suspect that up to 200,000 additional deaths from the disease have gone uncounted, due to a combination of undertrained coroners and medical examiners, a lack of standardization for identifying these deaths, under-testing, and other issues with death certificates. I was part of the team behind this investigation, which will continue with further stories in 2022; you can read more about the CDC data that drove much of our analysis here.
Note: the featured image for this post is taken from the Uncounted project; it’s a visualization by Janie Haseman at USA TODAY.