A Key Tool in Covid Tracking: The Freedom of Information Act

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In the early months of the pandemic, pockets of data in some U.S. communities suggested that the coronavirus was infecting and killing Black and Latino people at much higher rates than white people. A team of New York Times reporters tracking outbreaks across the country believed that acquiring granular national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could confirm this trend. There was just one problem: The federal government didn’t fulfill the reporters’ email request for the data.

To overcome that hurdle, Times journalists relied on a decades-old law known as the Freedom of Information Act, which grants the public access to records from almost any federal agency, and on state open-records laws. After the reporters obtained the data, their article, published in July, provided a detailed picture of 640,000 infections detected in nearly 1,000 U.S. counties, the most comprehensive look at coronavirus cases across the country to that point. The report also confirmed that Black and Latino people were indeed bearing the worst of the pandemic.

Over the past year, dozens of Times journalists who have been denied case-related data have filed more than 400 FOIA or other open-records requests with government agencies. Through many of these requests, reporters have been able to track cases and deaths and uncover locations of Covid-19 outbreaks.

“Having good information, having solid data and really respectfully staying on top of agencies to make sure they are being transparent leads to better accountability, and hopefully better policy,” said Mitch Smith, a National desk correspondent who covers the Midwest and was one of the journalists who reported on the racial inequity story.

Filing a FOIA request is, for the most part, as straightforward as writing an email. A reporter can submit a form on the federal FOIA website or a state equivalent, detailing the information sought. FOIA officers will then approve or deny the request, though at times they don’t make a determination for an extended period — weeks, months, sometimes years.

Journalists can appeal after a denial or after a deadline to decide or respond to a request has passed, but if the appeal fails or if an agency doesn’t respond, journalists can sue to receive the information, as The Times did to obtain the C.D.C. data underpinning its report on racial inequity. Sometimes, governments try to put up roadblocks in the form of charging exorbitant fees to conduct a records search or requiring a reporter to be a resident of the state where the request is filed, or simply requiring that a form be delivered by hand to a post office. In some of those cases, the courts can again be a recourse.

Danielle Ivory, an investigative reporter for The Times, began filing FOIA and open-records requests soon after joining the Covid tracking team a year ago. Early on, she and her colleagues filed requests in almost every state to obtain lists of nursing homes with coronavirus cases and deaths. Ms. Ivory estimated that later, when reporting on coronavirus clusters at universities, they had sent over 200 requests to at least 150 colleges alone for case data, which helped them trace more than 400,000 Covid cases back to the universities in 2020.

“A lot of these places didn’t want to disclose the information,” Ms. Ivory said. “Some places told us that they thought it was private. We were asking for aggregate information, so we disagreed with that assessment, and in many cases we were right, because some of them ended up giving it to us.”

As prisons and jails began reporting spikes in coronavirus outbreaks last year, open-records requests proved instrumental in tracking the spread of cases. Danya Issawi, a member of the team who worked on that project, said that filing FOIAs to sheriff’s offices and local health departments became almost a daily routine, not only for obtaining numbers of infections and deaths at these facilities but also for detention facility populations and information on testing.

“All that data represents real human lives and real human consequences in places that don’t readily share numbers,” Ms. Issawi said. “Every time we file a FOIA and get information back, it feels like you’re bridging a little bit of a gap to someone who might have loved ones or a friend.”

Now, as vaccination efforts continue, FOIA requests and other open records applications can keep playing a vital role in requiring governments to be transparent. Times journalists have filed dozens of FOIA requests this year alone, checking for distribution patterns or problem areas.

But Ms. Ivory is always optimistic that, as more and more people see the value of this data, it may become easier to obtain. “Honestly, I’m really hopeful,” she said.

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