Thursday, April 20, 2023

A new, free legal dataset captures over 8,000 machine-readable executive orders, health directives, proclamations, and policies related to COVID-19 from nearly 300 US federal, state, territory, county, city, and tribal jurisdictions.

“Law became a primary, non-pharmaceutical tool to slow the spread of COVID-19, and state and local governments passed an extraordinary number of laws and policies in the first six months of the pandemic,” said Elizabeth Platt, director of research and operations at the Center for Public Health Law Research (CPHLR) at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. “Tracking that volume of policies at a speed that would support useful evaluation required us to adjust our methods.”

In early April of 2020, as lockdowns were just beginning, CPHLR contacted The BroadStreet Institute, a Milwaukee-based non-profit organization that hosts a global data internship program. BroadStreet collaborated with CPHLR to create a real-time, crowdsourced policy surveillance program. Interns at BroadStreet were trained to use an adapted version of CPHLR’s coding scheme for tracking COVID-19 mitigation laws and policies across jurisdictions and over time.

After a few weeks of catching up on the backlog of laws and policies, the initial group of 40 coders — many of whom were undergraduate and public health students — were able to work in near real-time as the flurry of COVID-related laws and policies were passed.

In total, 261 interns from around the world contributed to the project during the 2.5 years of data collection. The team coded laws, executive orders, and policies far beyond the original scope of the project, which was 50 US states and the District of Columbia.

“It was civically empowering for our volunteers to be learn how to read the polices that were impacting their lives during the pandemic. We needed that. During uncertain times, we want to be informed and involved,” said Tracy Flood, President and Co-founder of BroadStreet. “Reading policies gave us a view into what was happening around the country as the pandemic unfurled. Each and every community had its own unique way of responding to the pandemic. We gained a deep appreciation for the role of local policymakers. We hope that this collection of policies will inform evidence-based policies in the future.”

The final dataset has more than 8,000 records and includes all the original state-level jurisdictions, as well as six US territories, five tribal territories, 82 counties, and 152 cities.

Some trends in the data include:

  • Spikes in the number of policies coincided with spikes in COVID cases.
  • The most commonly implemented policies across all levels of government were related to mask requirements, social distancing, and business restrictions.
  • Curfews were most commonly implemented by cities, while counties and states focused more on mask requirements and social distancing.
  • The U.S. response was state-based and local. The federal government had the fewest policies overall, with only a small number of policies implemented related to travel and vaccines.

“Preserving and analyzing the data related to COVID orders enables more accurate evaluation of the outcomes of these various policies and therefore better enables future policymakers and other stakeholders to pursue best practices in future related situations,” said Caitlin Wolff, Methods Lead and Team Lead at BroadStreet. “Government and public health entities have limited time and resources. Evaluating the effectiveness of policies instituted during the pandemic provides them with knowledge and evidence when/if needing to implement similar measures in future public health situations.”

Researchers, policymakers, and others can now use this data to understand the role of governing bodies and the trends and patterns in the policymaking approach to the pandemic; to gain insight for future pandemics; and to begin to understand the social, economic, and health-focused effects of these laws and policies.

“This is truly an amazing resource as we continue to make sense of the last three years of policymaking and the impact those policies had on health, well-being, and equity,” said Platt.

Explore and download the BroadStreet COVID-19 Policy Data: