Jessica Malaty Rivera wears many hats. Her official title is infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, but that’s just the beginning. Malaty Rivera rose to prominence during the pandemic, when she began debunking Covid-19 conspiracy theories and vaccine misinformation online. She soon became an Instagram star for her level-headed approach to complicated subjects. She recently took time out of her busy schedule, which includes caring for two young children, to speak with HealthyWomen’s editor-in-chief Jaimie Seaton.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
HealthyWomen: Can you tell me about the COVID Tracking Project and the COVID Racial Data Tracker and their goals?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: The COVID Tracking Project started in March of 2020, pretty soon after news of the pandemic emerged. It started with a few journalists who were based at The Atlantic seeking to find total data on Covid-19 testing. And what started off as a single spreadsheet to track testing turned into several hundreds of people, volunteers mostly, functioning like the CDC throughout the pandemic. We collected testing cases, hospitalization and death data from 56 states and jurisdictions. We also had a separate tracker that was tracking race and ethnicity data to the degree that it was available from all 56 states and jurisdictions and trying to make sense of what was available and identify all the gaps and deficiencies.
HealthyWomen: The COVID Racial Data Tracker and other research found that Covid-19 disproportionately affects people of color. This is unsurprising, given the long history of racism and discrimination against POC in health care. Do you think enough attention has been paid to the health disparities with Covid-19 and with health care in general?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: I think your question is important in the sense that we are unsurprised by the findings of this data. We also know that this data is incredibly incomplete. So, it’s just scratching the surface of what we know are disproportionate burdens of everything from the disease to access to things like testing and, now, vaccines. There has been a lot of attention, but there is certainly a need for more. And it’s not just attention, it’s resources. We need really faithful commitment to good and thorough data.
We have identified vaccination data that is lacking demographic details. That really is unfortunate because we need to know who’s getting vaccinated, and we need to know where they’re getting vaccinated so that we can better address these issues of underlying racism, underlying mistrust in medical personnel and innovation. Because if we don’t have the data, we can’t inform policy.
HealthyWomen: We’re hearing a lot now about the fact that vaccine supply is outstripping demand. Do you think it’s too easy when we’re saying vaccine supply is outstripping demand or that communities of color and lower income communities are having trouble accessing vaccines?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yes. It’s not as simple as access. It’s things like trust and equitable access. There are campaigns right now that are helping people who have different abilities, who have varying degrees of access to high speed internet, make digital appointments. There are companies that are trying to help provide rides to vaccination centers because people may not have cars. I read a headline recently that was talking about people being turned away from vaccination centers that are drive-thru-based because people were showing up without cars. Some of these people don’t have cars. Equity vaccine accessibility has to be the utmost priority because it’s not just that people aren’t taking the appointments and people aren’t taking the vaccine — there are barriers to both.
HealthyWomen: That’s so interesting about the cars. It’s so maddening as well, when there is so much vaccine hesitancy and we just want people to get vaccinated.
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Exactly, you have somebody showing up on foot asking to be vaccinated and because they don’t have a car, you can’t give them a dose. That’s mind-boggling.
HealthyWomen: The COVID Tracking Project stopped collecting data in March. What happens now?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: The one thing that stopped on March 7 was that we are no longer collecting data from each state, but there has been a ton of work that has been ongoing since then. We are doing a lot of analysis on the data that we have available, writing a lot of summaries and observations, and pointing people to the correct places to find the type of data that we were reporting. The system that was created at the COVID Tracking Project was never intended to be permanent. We can now point people in the direction of the sources that should have always been the sources, which are the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services.
HealthyWomen: Why is the work of the COVID Tracking Project important?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: This is a pandemic that we should have been more prepared for. This was a huge wake-up call for the U.S. government on ways we could have handled this better. All the loss that happened did not have to be this way, if we had just funded public health and created data infrastructure systems that could have handled this influx of data.
HealthyWomen: Do you think that it would have gone better if Donald Trump had not been our president, or do you think politics would have always gotten in the way?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Politics are always in the way. Over 10 years ago, I was working on a government-funded project that was doing pandemic modeling and surveillance, and we were trying to basically prevent this exact situation. In fact, our team detected the onset of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Since then, we have seen a slow defunding of public health, deprioritization of things like disease surveillance. And all of these things, on top of this last administration, put us in a very disadvantageous position when the disease emerged.
HealthyWomen: You were a consultant on the movie “Contagion.” In the movie, people fight to get vaccines. Would you have predicted there would be such widespread protest of safety measures and vaccine hesitancy in the face of a deadly pandemic?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Absolutely. It’s 100% predictable. In fact, from the very earliest days of the pandemic, many of us who have been involved in emerging infectious diseases knew that when you have an outbreak of a new virus, you can almost immediately predict an outbreak of misinformation and disinformation. It’s what we call the infodemic. It happens in tandem with pandemics and epidemics. And so much of this is predictable. There are always snake oil salespeople that are trying to sell you supplements and different kinds of off-label treatments. There are always people who are going to sow doubt and discord when it comes to things like pharmaceutical companies and medical innovations. When you have something that’s universally threatening, there are people that will respond out of fear and panic, and there are also people who take advantage of the opportunity and cause a bunch of harm. That’s kind of par for the course, unfortunately.
HealthyWomen: It’s also unfortunate that we didn’t learn from the 1918 pandemic experience.
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Well, it’s interesting that you mention 1918. One of the biggest public health takeaways from 1918 was the focus of hand hygiene. We learned after 1918 that it’s really important to wash your hands. With Covid-19, we’re now learning the benefits of masking, which has been pretty normal in a lot of parts of the world, but now I think for many people like myself, when it’s flu season, if I’ve got a tickle in my throat, I’m always going to have a mask on hand, especially when I’m traveling. And so I think that there are some silver linings.
HealthyWomen: Why do you think there is such widespread rejection of science right now and all of these conspiracy theories and questioning of the vaccine?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: There isn’t one single answer to this question. I would say one of the issues is the underlying condition of very bad science education. I think science and data literacy are very low. And that’s why I view my work as not dumbing it down or even shaming people, because they don’t understand. My goal is to educate and elevate people’s science and data literacy, because at the base level, people just don’t remember basic science.
I think we’re also dealing with the fact that you have journalists who are looking for clicks and eyes on their articles and write headlines that cause people to make false correlations between two events. You also have people who are intentionally deciding to cause harm and discord.
Disinformation is different from misinformation. There are people who intend to create conspiracies. And then there’s misinformation, which stems from general mistrust of what they think is behind the scenes when it comes to science and research. I would also say that there’s a lot of fear and a lot of emotionally triggering things. If we want to talk about the reasons why some communities are mistrusting of things like vaccines, look at the history of the United States.
We have experimented on black and brown bodies time and time again. There are many reasons why communities don’t want to sign up for these things. And if we don’t see the nuance that’s necessary in the communication about science and medicine, we’re only going to exacerbate these barriers between people doing things we need them to do for public health.
HealthyWomen: Aside from communities that have real justification for mistrust, there are those who are getting their information from places like Fox and Newsmax. How do you convince people who get their news from unreliable sources and live in that bubble to listen to facts and reason?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: I think it’s really important that the goal should never be to convince, the goal should be to listen and understand and then have a fruitful conversation after the fact. If my goal in doing science communication was just to say, “Get the vaccine” or “You should get the vaccine,” I’m not going to win many people over. I want to understand what’s making people choose not to, or what’s making people reluctant and walk them through ideological fallacies that they have. Walk them through the misinformation that they’ve been exposed to. Or actually say, “Hey, let me point your eyes in a different direction. You’re getting your information from uncredible people. You’re getting your information from people who are not actually subject matter experts, from armchair epidemiologists. Let me show you the right people to follow.” And kind of turning their gaze so that they themselves can make informed decisions. I want to be able to turn confusion and doubt and fear into confidence and empowerment.
HealthyWomen: What’s the number one thing we’re doing wrong in communicating with people who are vaccine hesitant or who won’t wear masks?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: The persistent issue is a lack of prioritization from the federal government and even from manufacturers, of putting funding behind science communication. We’ve done ourselves a disservice by pouring billions of dollars into Operation Warp Speed so that we have these incredibly safe and effective vaccines available within a year of the pandemic being declared, and then communicating about it is an afterthought.
We spent so much money on these vaccines. Where was the money in the vaccine communication plan that was going to go with it? Even when thinking about the last mile of vaccines, we made all these vaccines and then we’re like, “Oh wait, we now have to give money to the states so they can actually deliver the vaccines.” A vaccine doesn’t save lives — a vaccination does. And we need communication and logistics to get us from a vaccine that’s in a freezer to a conversation in a place that’s going to cause somebody to roll up their sleeve.
HealthyWomen: In a recent CBS poll, four in 10 Americans say that maybe they will get the vaccine. That’s 18%. And 22% said no outright. So given those numbers, which are better than they were last week, do you think we’ll be able to get to herd immunity?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yes. These numbers are shrinking by the week. I think that when we talk about people who are absolutely resolved to not get the vaccine, we’re talking about a very loud minority of people. Vaccine trust is gaining, vaccine confidence is growing. I think that knowing that at least 50% of adults in America have had at least one dose is incredibly promising news because when we talk about herd immunity, we’re also talking about some of the pediatric population. I feel very confident that these pediatric populations, especially thinking of people who are 12 to 18, will likely be vaccinated by the end of the year, and we’ll get north of 70%. I’m very confident in that.
HealthyWomen: You’re the mother of two young children. How do you remain hopeful in the face of so much willful ignorance in our country and the world?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: Oh man. That’s such a hard question. I think words matter. And we can create more problems when it comes to science if we’re not careful with our words; we can also have more solutions if we are careful with our words. And I want people to understand that the trust is broken, but the trust that’s rebuilt can be remedied if we focus on how we talk about science. So, I feel hopeful that now “science communicator” is a thing, that scientists are becoming the new celebrities, that I can actually get scientific information on Instagram.
HealthyWomen: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want to include?
Jessica Malaty Rivera: I am loving the recognition of women in science or women of color in science. And I feel like I will always be singing the praises of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett who has become this icon of innovation and research as one of the researchers behind the Moderna vaccine. I think that science and research and academia have been very unkind to women, especially women of color, and it’s not necessarily completely changed. You can even see some of the bullying that happens constantly on Twitter, but there have been so many women and women of color at the forefront of Covid-19 research and response that I just feel like I’m so honored to witness it, and I can’t wait to see the future of science and science influence be led by women.