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Why A Major COVID-19 Tracking Project Is Shutting Down


The COVID Tracking Project began when two Atlantic magazine journalists joined forces with a researcher who was also compiling testing and tracking data in the early days of the pandemic. That was in March. Now there are hundreds of people involved in the project, but the COVID Tracking Project says that it's shutting down. Alexis Madrigal is founder of the project and joins us now. Mr. Madrigal, thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: I understand you'll release your final tally on March 7, then wind down the whole project. Why?

MADRIGAL: Well, you know, I think there's a couple of things. One is the proper place for compiling national statistics for a pandemic was never a bunch of volunteers, journalists and outside researchers. The proper place is the federal government. And we, every few months, have tried to take a look at what was available from the federal government and say, you know, is this good enough that we can exit stage right? And I think we're very, very close to that now. And we've seen extremely encouraging signs about increased transparency out of the government basically starting in November, maybe even a little earlier, and really accelerating over the last few weeks.

SIMON: This is going to be difficult, but I've got to ask. What caused the difference, do you think?

MADRIGAL: I don't think it's too difficult. I mean, I think the Trump administration was actively suppressing some of the information that the federal government had. That's one piece. And the second piece is just that it took a while to get the data systems online at the federal level to produce the kind of data that you would need to respond to and understand the pandemic.

SIMON: Given your perspective over the last 10 months, really the last year, what worries you this weekend?

MADRIGAL: Two things - one is cases are dropping rapidly basically everywhere in the country. Hospitalizations are falling as well. But that hope is tempered by the current horrors of how many people are being reported to have died. Really, you know, January was the deadliest month by far, but because of the way the numbers are reported, that really means that the holiday season was just horrifying. So I think people may be taking too much optimism from the fact that cases are falling, especially because we know that there are these variants of concern that have developed in other parts of the world and are likely to take hold in the U.S. as well. And we're just - that introduces a very important uncertainty about what's going to happen over the coming weeks and months.

SIMON: What about the slowness of the vaccine campaign?

MADRIGAL: That, obviously, would've been much better if we'd been able to roll out much faster with, you know, more manufacturing capacity and more attention paid to the last mile. I guess it's not surprising to me given that, over and over again in the United States, we haven't proven to have the state capacity to execute on the good plans that people are able to put together. And the fact that it's going OK now - I wouldn't say it's going great, but it's going OK - means, you know, every person who's gotten a shot is likely to have their lives saved even if they, you know, encounter the virus in the world.

SIMON: You've looked at data for a year. And I wonder - I recognize it's a guess, but an educated and experienced guess - what life will look like in the United States, let's say, by April and then by August and then, say, the end of the year?

MADRIGAL: Yeah. I would like to qualify this by saying that, you know, in this capacity, I'd be speaking solely for myself and not the COVID Tracking Project. I think I'm on the optimistic side of things. You know, most coronaviruses do exhibit seasonality. They go up at a certain time of the year, and they go down. And they do that with fair regularity. We have seasonality probably working on our behalf at this point.

We have vaccinations going to the most vulnerable people. You know, the vast majority of deaths are concentrated in older folks. And vaccines are, in fact, rolling out to those people, particularly in the long-term care facilities, where deaths have been so concentrated.

And a lot of people have been infected in this country. You know, the number of confirmed cases, you know, is, say, 26 million, something like that right now. But the number of people who've actually been infected is a multiple of that, probably something closer to 100 million. You know, we're not talking about a naive population anymore. We're talking about a lot of people either have the vaccine or have some level of natural immunity from having been infected before.

I'm optimistic that by April, we'll for sure have the end of the pandemic in sight, at least as an emergency condition in the way that we've experienced it. I think COVID will not be gone. I expect for myself and I'm planning for August to be fairly normal. The trick is at the end of the year might be when COVID's coming back, and particularly in places where there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy or lack of vaccine access. Perhaps it's in those places where we have, actually, trouble again, you know, 10 months from now.

SIMON: Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic magazine. He's founder of the COVID Tracking Project. Thanks so much for being with us.

MADRIGAL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.