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How We Used FOIA to Track Ventilator and Hospital Bed Availability in Illinois

Early data released by the Illinois Department of Public Health wasn’t granular enough for an accurate picture of the coronavirus’ impact on Chicago hospitals versus hospitals in areas with fewer cases. Here’s how we pushed for specifics.

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I’m Ash Ngu, the news applications developer at ProPublica Illinois. What’s a news apps developer? Well, part of my job is to take unwieldy, wonky datasets and polish them into something that helps readers make sense of the world. Today, I want to share with you a tracker we released that keeps tabs on ventilator and hospital bed capacities in every region of the state, and tell you a bit more about the story of getting the data behind it.

First, some context. At the beginning of March, before coronavirus case counts really began to climb in the U.S., the big question was: Will hospitals be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients? To answer that question, a few colleagues and I built an app that let readers look up projections for how hospitals in their region would fare under nine different pandemic scenarios.

Then, in April, as more and more people became sick with the coronavirus, the question of whether hospitals would be overwhelmed was no longer theoretical. In daily COVID-19 press briefings, Illinois officials cited statewide numbers of available ventilators and ICU beds. But I knew that the statewide data wasn’t granular enough to give an accurate picture of the impact on hospitals in Chicago versus hospitals in areas that had seen far fewer cases. For more specific data, I’d need to contact the Illinois Department of Public Health.

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for hospital-level bed and ventilator counts. A couple days later, I received a daily report that didn’t have what I specifically requested, but at least it had the data broken out into eleven regions. This was specific, new information that hadn’t yet been released publicly. I immediately asked for the archive of reports.

Finding suitable data is half the battle when making a news app, so I was excited when IDPH agreed to regularly feed me those reports. I started building out the tracker to systematically collect the data and publish it. The plan was to take each report from IDPH and update the tracker once a day. It’d take me five minutes a day. Easy peasy.

Then, on April 4, IDPH stopped sending me the reports. Womp womp. My contacts there would not confirm if they could continue sending me the data I had been getting.

The last IDPH report I received on April 3. The reports are three pages long and contain specific hospital resource counts by region.

I relayed the bad news to my editors, dispirited that the tracker was almost finished but wouldn’t see the light of day. Still, I kept pushing the health department for the data. Then, last Monday, IDPH told me they hoped to have the data on their website soon and on Wednesday, it appeared. On Friday, we published our tracker.

Since then, updating the tracker has become part of my new normal. In the evening, I look at the numbers coming in and take note of any significant changes. I encourage you to look up your region and keep your eyes out for the same as we approach the peak in Illinois. State officials overseeing Illinois’ projections told the Chicago Sun-Times that the peak “should be somewhere starting now through the first week of May.” If you spot anything, email us.

And of course, I’m still waiting for IDPH to backfill the data between April 4 to April 13. How did Chicago go from having 16% of ventilators available on April 3 to 55% of ventilators on April 14? If that ever comes over the transom, we’ll add it to the tracker so you have the information, too.

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Ash Ngu

Ash Ngu is a reporter, designer and developer with ProPublica's news apps team.

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