“At that point I started texting everyone I had contacted during the week,” he says. Realizing how many people visit Provincetown across the country, he also posted about his infection on Twitter and Instagram. Direct messages came back, from people who thought they’d grabbed some summer crude while traveling. “They thought they were fine,” he says. “Then they tested themselves and it turned out they had Covid too.”
One of the people Holihan sent a text message to was Donnelly. This may seem strange, because Donnelly is not an epidemiologist. He is a political geek who has made macroeconomic forecasts at the Federal Reserve Board and analyzed data on Spotify and Facebook. But since early 2020, Donnelly has also been applying his skills to predict what Covid might do in the U.S., a way to make sense of data flowing from other countries and explain to others why they should be more concerned than they were. . “Essentially, I wanted to convince my friends that it was bad,” he says.
Donnelly’s analysis, which he initially published in Medium, had been solid. He had predicted that federal action would be needed two days before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. He had warned that New York City would have to close six days before Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the entire state would be “paused.” This prediction led to a consulting concert with New York State (forecasting possible case counts, bed needs, and fan orders) and then founding a site called CovidOutlook.info, a home for reports and predictions. which he created with Michael LeVasseur, an epidemiologist at Drexel University.
Thus, when the Delta variant began to crawl through Provincetown, Donnelly was an informal but knowledgeable expert on what Covid was doing in the US. “I had been tracking variants for the previous six months and broadly thought the concerns about them were exaggerated,” he says. When his friends started giving positive, he was surprised and angry. He didn’t like to be wrong.
The rumors about people giving a positive were going through the group talks: most of this house, all in that country house; the Pennsylvania group, the California group, that DC couple; 10 positive people, or 15, or 25. Text by text, Donnelly began to check the stories, asking people about their symptoms and the tests that had been done, when they were vaccinated, and what vaccine they received, and all the details of their visits to Provincetown: where they stayed, who they spent time with, what bars, restaurants and shows they went to. He started collecting information on Saturday afternoon, and by Monday he already had more than 50 names on a spreadsheet.
The list represented a staggering number of innovative infections for a young, healthy and affluent population, a group that should have been at the lowest risk. Donnelly felt the urge to do a study, but LeVasseur persuaded him to turn the project over to an institution larger than his team of two. Donnelly contacted Demeter Daskalakis, the former head of infectious disease programs at the New York City Department of Health, who was now on the CDC. On Monday night, Donnelly sent a text message offering the spreadsheet. Daskalakis asked for it immediately.
Within 24 hours, Daskalakis made calls between Donnelly, the CDC, and the Massachusetts Department of Health. By the end of the week, agencies had set up a working group, set up a phone number and email for people to self-declare, contacted other states where visitors had gone home, and they had gotten the mobile test units routed to Provincetown. . “It’s the fastest response I’ve ever seen in public health,” Daskalakis says. “And Michael practically started investigating the outbreak himself.”