A new POLITICO investigation sheds light on the data disorder at various levels of U.S. government during the pandemic: data quality issues, outdated technology, and numerous programs that can’t talk to each other.

The Oklahoma City Health Department, for example, was receiving COVID data via fax and manually entering the figures into their dashboard, according to the investigation. And that was among the least worrying anecdotes.


Inside the state health department in Oklahoma City, staffers shuffled through piles of paper they’d pulled out of fax machines and sorted through hundreds of secure emails to upload Covid-19 lab results manually to the state’s digital dashboard — a system that often malfunctioned. Other employees desperately tried to work with labs — many of whom had not worked with the state previously — to walk them through the process of sending results electronically.

When the data came in, state employees routinely found errors — instances where a person was counted twice or two people with the same name were identified as a single patient.

Meanwhile, in an old shopping mall on the other side of town, hundreds of volunteers sat at desks with telephones and checklists. Their goal: contact as many infected people as possible. But they couldn’t keep up. From the end of September to the end of December, individuals with Covid-19 monitored by the Oklahoma health department decreased by 65 percent while the number of positive cases increased by 205 percentaccording to the findings of a state investigation.

Oklahoma’s struggle is America’s. The CDC relies on states to identify and monitor viral outbreaks that, if uncontrolled, can kill thousands of people. But the coronavirus exposed a patchwork system in which state officials struggled to control the spread of Covid-19 because their outdated surveillance systems did not allow them to collect and analyze data in real-time, according to a six-month POLITICO investigation that included interviews with four dozen health officials in 25 states and more than a dozen current and former officials at the CDC and other federal health agencies.