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As coronavirus cases continue to skyrocket, the Trump administration is ordering hospitals to send their coronavirus data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health experts say the move, which would make the information inaccessible to the public, is “dangerous and breeds distrust.”
The New York Times was the first to report the changes, which were announced in a document published by the HHS last week. The HHS advisory says that as of today, “hospitals should no longer report the Covid-19 information in this document to the National Healthcare Safety Network site,” which is operated by the CDC. The data collected includes hospital and ICU bed occupancy, PPE supply, COVID-19 hospitalizations, and other information that’s key to tracking the pandemic’s strain on the nation’s hospitals.
The CDC itself calls the NHSN “the nation’s most widely used healthcare-associated infection tracking system,” but under Trump the agency has been heavily criticized for its lagging response to the coronavirus.
Trump administration officials, such as HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo, on the other hand, said that the CDC’s system wasn’t working well enough.
“Today, the CDC still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data,” Caputo told the Times. “The new, faster, and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus, and the CDC, an operating division of HHS, will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response. They will simply no longer control it.”
But public health experts aren’t buying that explanation. “Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust,” former Obama administration health official Dr. Nicole Lurie told the Times. “It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like CDC to do its basic job.”
“The under-reporting of #COVID19 is about to get a lot worse and much less transparent,” Dr. Alison Galvani, a Yale epidemiologist and the director of the school’s Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis (CIDMA), said in response to the news.
The change was spearheaded by Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force who reportedly told hospital executives they weren’t reporting their data adequately in a conference call several weeks ago, according to the Times.
Rather than use the CDC’s system, the new data will be reported to TeleTracking, a private Pittsburgh-based firm which in April was awarded a $10.2 million no-bid contract to “to provide the Department of Health and Human Services with COVID-19 rapid deployment plan for real-time healthcare system capacity reporting.”
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee charged with oversight of HHS, wrote a letter to CDC director Robert Redfield last month asking for more details about the plan.
It’s not just the federal government that’s facing questions about the transparency of coronavirus data. Several states have seen their reporting practices come under increased scrutiny during a pandemic as the death toll of the pandemic has spiralled to over 136,000 Americans and counting.
One former Florida health official created her own coronavirus database for the state after she was fired for allegedly refusing to manipulate data. In May, a fight between Arizona State University and the state’s health officials went public after the state tried to shut down a team of experts working on a coronavirus model.
And on Tuesday, Iowa state auditor Rob Sand released a report finding that the state Department of Public Health was the fourth entity in a chain to receive coronavirus test results, after two Utah-based private companies and a separate state agency.
"We’ve asked the question: 'Why can’t it be reported directly? Why are you routing it this way?' And we’ve received no answer to it, which suggests to us that there is no legitimate point to do it that way," Sand said on Tuesday.
Cover: Cadet candidate Daphne Karahalios, of Chicago, has her temperature taken as she arrives at the U.S. Military Academy, Monday, July 13, 2020, in West Point, N.Y. The Army is welcoming more than 1,200 candidates from every state. Candidates will be COVID-19 tested immediately upon arrival, wear masks, and practice social distancing. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)