This Middlebury College Student Is Tracking The White House Outbreak From His Dorm Room

Oct 7, 2020

Eight months ago, VPR interviewed a Middlebury College junior named Benjy Renton, who had just returned from studying abroad in China. He’d been forced to come back to the United States because of an outbreak of a new virus called – you guessed it – COVID-19.

A lot has happened since then. Renton, now a senior and the digital director for The Middlebury Campus, has spent those months going deep into the spread of COVID-19 around the globe through his blog Off The Silk Road, on all things COVID related.

In late summer and fall, he was tracking the reopening and outbreaks at schools around the country. Now, he’s turned his sights to the outbreak affecting the federal government, centered on the White House. He’s working with two senior journalists to trace and display the outbreak.

Our guest is:

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to the full show, here.

Jane Lindholm: You have been spending a lot of time tracking this outbreak, which became public with the announcement that Hope Hicks had tested positive. What is your case tally up to right now?

Editor’s note: As of Wed., Oct. 7, there were 35 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 associated with the outbreak, and 312 contacts. The following update from Renton is from Mon., Oct. 5.

[As of Oct. 5] We're up to 19 positive, now. The nineteenth was White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who was just confirmed this morning, and there are over 271 contacts, some of whom we have negative results for. For others, we're still awaiting results.

Find the latest data from Renton’s White House outbreak tracker, here.

How are you actually getting this information and doing the tracing to figure out who could be a contact of those who are positive?

We source any kind of pictures, flight manifests, news reports – it's all publicly available information. We use a lot of very helpful tweets from officials, saying that they tested negative, or otherwise. We also have a tip line where the public can submit any leads, which we will potentially investigate.

What about those who may not be as immediately and publicly visible, people who work at the White House or elsewhere who aren't necessarily public officials?

Yeah, that's definitely an issue that we've run into, and one that we greatly appreciate [getting additional] information about, because I think there is a gap. We invite those who do work at the White House or any people who we may have missed to submit an anonymous tip or to get in touch with us, because we really want to cover this outbreak as best we can and cast a wide net.

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Who are you working with?

I've been working with Peter Walker, who is the data co-lead at The Atlantic COVID Tracking Project and Dr. Jesse O'Shea, an infectious disease doctor at Emory.

How did you get hooked up with these two people?

Early Friday morning, when I learned about the outbreak, I started posting a couple of graphics and just kind of tracing it for myself. And then, I was put in touch through a mutual friend on Twitter with Peter and Jesse, and we've really been working around the clock ever since.

How does having access to these two people help you with the work that you were already doing, and what do they get from working with you?

I have to say that Peter has really been the data visualization genius in all of this. Initially, I started working in PowerPoint, making kind of little squares and boxes of the different contacts and the people who tested positive. That turned into a table, and then the table kind of became insufficient. So Peter really turned it in to [what it is now], where we have lists of events, lists of dates, so you can clearly see from the information that we have who on what day was the last contact with the president or a contact.

We're now also tracing second order contacts – contacts of people who tested positive from potentially an index case. We also now have a testing grid, so you can see for those officials who are repeatedly tested, if those test results ever change.

In the case of White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, it did change in that the past couple of days, she tested negative, and now she’s tested positive. And Jesse was great at also sourcing all of the different leads that we have and really lending that infectious disease expertize to all of us.

You've spent so much time tracking and contact tracing and you even work as a contact tracer now for the state of New York. Why is this so all-consuming for you?

Earlier in the spring, I took the contact tracing course offered through Johns Hopkins, but never really put it to use in terms of working officially for any state or local department. I do think those skills have definitely helped in kind of just conceptualizing the scope of this outbreak and being able to visualize it.

"I think the pandemic has stressed the importance of up-to-date and accurate information." - Benjy Renton

I think for me, as someone who's been personally impacted by the pandemic – being in China, being on a college campus in March in the U.S., and now being back here at Middlebury – I think it's just been really meaningful to me to try and present all the information in a really clear and up-to-date way.

Curious about what it's like to get a call from a contact tracer? Head here.

I think the pandemic has stressed the importance of up-to-date and accurate information. We really want to get the information out as fast as we can, but we also need to be as accurate as possible. And we believe that the American people, especially in this case, they deserve the transparency and they really want up-to-date information on, really, officials in all three branches of government and possibly many more.

How are you treating the question of naming people publicly? Are the people you find as contacts always already publicly known or are you sometimes able to triangulate who a person is, even if they have not made a public statement about their status?

Initially, we had three journalists and also a White House press staffer, who still is unnamed. We did have three journalists earlier in the weekend and one of them came forward – it was reported in The Washington Post that the journalist was New York Times correspondent Michael Shear, who tested positive. We value every individual’s privacy and we really want to ensure that any information that we break is with their explicit permission and from the public reports that we get.

We did get one lead from a contact of Chris Christie, who had tested positive. One of the journalists who he had worked with on ABC had actually reached out on Twitter, mentioning those journalists and telling them to get tested. And one of them responded to us and said that they were tested and the result was negative. So that was really, very helpful.

We really wanted to take this seriously and we really respect every individual's privacy.

There have been a lot of questions raised by some people about how much we can trust somebody's self-reporting of their own status on this. Are you basically relying on self-reporting? What do you think about that?

Yes, we definitely rely on self-reports. I think the one that's been most conspicuous in the past couple of days has been the daughter of former counselor Kellyanne Conway, Claudia Conway, who has a very active presence on TikTok. She posted a video indicating that she had COVID-19.

But George Conway, her father and Kellyanne’s husband, had sent out a clarifying tweet saying that they were being tested and still hadn’t gotten the results. So we've kind of just kept her as an unknown status right now, and we hope that either George or Claudia will post an update. But we really want to just try and be accurate.

Editor’s note: As of 4 p.m. on Oct. 7, Claudia Conway was listed on Renton’s data dashboard as a confirmed positive case.

What do you think regular people will get out of this tracking and tracing and data visualization that you're putting together?

We think that the spread is quite alarming, based on the current data that we have. We're seeing kind of this super spreading event, whether that was through the Rose Garden event for the Supreme Court a couple of Saturdays ago; there was an indoor event related to that.

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We really hope that people can understand how an outbreak unfolds in real time, and I hope that people use this data to really make their own conscious decisions about keeping themselves safe and keeping them protected from COVID-19.

Have a question about the developing news and its effect on the 2020 election? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Broadcast live on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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