“At that point, I started texting everyone I wanted to get in touch with during the week,” he says. When he realized how many people visit Provincetown from across the country, he also wrote about being infected on Twitter and Instagram. DMs streamed back from people who thought they had picked up some summer cream while traveling. “They thought they were fine,” he says. “Then they tested themselves, and it turned out they had Covid, too.”
One of those Holihan texted was Donnelly. This may seem strange, because Donnelly is not an epidemiologist. He is a police nerd who has made macroeconomic forecasts at the Federal Reserve Board and data analysis at Spotify and Facebook. But since the beginning of 2020, Donnelly had also used his skills to predict what Covid could do in the United States, a way to make sense of the data flowing from other countries and explain to others why they should be more worried than they were. . “Basically, I wanted to convince my friends it was bad,” he says.
Donnelly’s analyzes, which he originally published on 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 shut down six days before Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the entire state would be put “on pause.” This prediction led to a consultant appearance with the state of New York (prediction of possible case numbers, bed needs and fan orders) and then to the establishment of a website called CovidOutlook.infoa home for reports and predictions he found with Michael LeVasseur, an epidemiologist at Drexel University.
So when the Delta variant began to creep through Provincetown, Donnelly was an informal but thoroughly informed expert on what Covid was doing in the United States. “I had been tracking variants over the previous six months and generally thought the concerns about them were exaggerated,” he says. When his friends started testing positive, he was surprised and burned. He did not like to make mistakes.
Rumors that people were testing positive came through group chat: most of this house, everyone in that cottage; The Pennsylvania group, the California group, the couple from DC; 10 people positive, or 15 or 25. Text by text Donnelly began to verify the stories, asking people about the symptoms they had and the tests they had taken, when they were vaccinated, and what shot they got, and all the details about their visits to Provincetown – where they lived, who they hung out with, what bars and restaurants and shows they went to. He began gathering information Saturday afternoon, and on Monday he had more than 50 names in a spreadsheet.
The list represented a shocking number of breakthrough infections for a young, healthy, affluent population, a group that should have been at the lowest risk. Donnelly felt an itch after doing a study, but LeVasseur persuaded him to leave the project to a larger institution than their team of two. Donnelly got in touch with Demetre Daskalakis, the former head of infectious disease programs at New York City’s health department, who was now at the CDC. Monday night, Donnelly texted and offered the spreadsheet. Daskalakis asked for it right away.
Within 24 hours, Daskalaki’s established calls between Donnelly, the CDC, and the Massachusetts Department of Health. By the end of the week, the agencies had set up a task force, set up a phone number and email that people could self-report, reached out to other states that visitors had gone home to, and had mobile test units roll toward Provincetown. “It’s the most accelerated reaction I’ve ever seen in public health,” Daskalakis says. “And Michael pretty much started that outbreak investigation himself.”