This week, two major COVID-19 tracking efforts announced that they will stop collecting data. While the decisions make sense in light of reduced data availability these days, this news still feels like a signal that fewer institutions want to spend time and resources on pandemic tracking.
The Johns Hopkins global dashboard and broader Coronavirus Resource Center is one of those shutting down. Its team plans to stop data collection and reporting on March 10, 2023. Johns Hopkins’ project was one of the very first COVID-19 trackers to come online in early 2020, filling a void when the CDC and other government agencies failed to provide the frequent, user-friendly updates people wanted.
Lauren Gardner, a Johns Hopkins professor who helped run the project, told NPR that its end is “bittersweet” but that “it’s an appropriate time to move on.” Other countries, as well as individual states and counties in the U.S. that the project used as data sources, are now updating their COVID-19 numbers less frequently and less reliably.
These reduced state and local updates are also one reason why the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker will shut down, according to an update posted to the project’s GitHub repository this week. “As case and death reporting at the local level has become less frequent and comprehensive, the daily data we have been able to gather has become less useful for indicating real-time trends about the virus,” wrote NYT graphics editor Wilson Andrews.
The NYT’s COVID-19 dashboard will still get updated, according to Andrews’ GitHub note, but it will rely on the CDC and other federal data sources rather than compiling its own data. Andrews shared several key links where readers can find federal data, including the CDC’s main dashboard, the White House Community Profile Reports, and data pulled from death certificates. (H/t to Nicki Camberg for flagging the NYT announcement!)
It’s worth noting here that the COVID Tracking Project—for which I served as a volunteer—similarly pointed users to federal data sources when it shut down, nearly two years ago. Data from the CDC and HHS have improved significantly throughout the pandemic, to a point that these sources are likely more reliable than adding up numbers from individual states and localities. But federal data still suffer from case undercounting, lack of standardization (for some metrics), and other issues.
For my own updates at the COVID-19 Data Dispatch, I mostly use CDC data, along with wastewater surveillance data from a couple of outside sources (Biobot, WastewaterSCAN). So I get why places like Johns Hopkins and the NYT would want to point people to these sources, rather than spending time collecting their own data.
Even so, this feels like the end of an era for pandemic tracking: two giants of the field are shutting down. The announcements seem to suggest that people are no longer interested in learning about COVID-19 spread in their communities—even though, I can tell you from writing this newsletter, the audience is very much still present, and the work is very much still necessary.
And in case it needs to be said: the COVID-19 Data Dispatch isn’t going anywhere.