And so that night we split up the states. I took the bottom half of the alphabet; he took the top. And we were able to come up with the first real number. And it was less than 2,000 people had been tested as of March 6 …
We hit Publish on this story. I go to check my email, and a name I hadn’t seen for a long time pops in: Jeff Hammerbacher. He and I were freshmen at Harvard together.
The subject line is “Did y’all use my spreadsheet!? Thanks for writing this up. I’m curious if you used my spreadsheet to help track this data.” So I click on this thing and I’m like, Oh my God, he built the same spreadsheet.
Katherine Wells: Is this publicly accessible?
Madrigal: Yes, it’s publicly accessible on COVIDtracking.com. And the Twitter feed is @COVID19tracking. We started it on Saturday. And it has, like, 90,000 followers now.
Wells: Ninety thousand and one.
Madrigal: I think this is really important—right now we don’t actually know how much testing is being done in the United States. Still. But we know that testing is the key strategy in trying to move back to normalcy. We need to be able to test and test and test. And we needed to be able to track our success …
Wells: So this was a week ago? I’ve lost all sense of time.
Madrigal: This was March 7.
Wells: Two weeks ago. It’s March 20—who knew?
Madrigal: So we put out a call for volunteers, because this is a grueling data-entry process. You go to every single state’s website, and you enter the numbers, and the way we do it is you actually then have a double-checker that comes through and makes sure all the numbers are right.
Wells: So just to be clear, COVIDtracking.com—which is a website created by you, Alexis, a journalist, and your buddy from college—is currently the most comprehensive source of data on testing rates, something that in other countries is being provided by their health departments in the government.
Madrigal: Exactly. It’s a bunch of volunteers working all over the country all hours of the night. And we’re doing what other countries’ national public-health services are doing.
James Hamblin: We have strong, excellent [state] public-health departments, which are helping and being transparent and working.
Madrigal: Oh, 100 percent.
Hamblin: And that’s the way the system is designed to function. So I think that there’s definitely weirdness happening. But it’s partly the design, right, Alexis?
Madrigal: Yeah, I think that’s true. We have a system that’s designed around state-level control of a lot of these things, because we’re the United States. We know that the public-health people out there want to do this. We want to help them.
I feel like what this project has become is an accountability project, where every volunteer hour logged, every cell that we fill out, every time we publish, it’s just a reminder that we’re not getting the information we need and it’s not actually really the fault of our public-health infrastructure. It’s the larger forces around them. And if we can align those larger forces with their needs, then we should do that.