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Update 12:29 pm ET: The headline and text of the story have been updated to reflect that the data was put back online early Thursday afternoon after being offline since Wednesday night.
Just one day after the federal government ordered hospitals to begin sending coronavirus data to the Trump administration rather than the CDC, which then made the information publicly available, the data disappeared online for hours before coming back in the early afternoon.
On Thursday, the CDC’s National Health Safety Network, which had been collecting and publishing the data, still had the links to a dashboard that previously displayed states’ estimates of occupied inpatient beds, inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and occupied ICU beds. Those data points are crucial for the federal government and the public to understand the strain the pandemic is putting on the nation’s hospitals.
But on Thursday morning, clicking on the links brought up pages that read the “content isn’t available” with a link to “learn more” about Microsoft’s data visualization tool Power BI, which apparently powered the CDC’s data. Other data previously reported to the CDC which was temporarily removed from the site included data on healthcare worker staffing and information on the availability and supply of personal protective equipment, a CDC spokesperson told CNN.
CDC Director Robert Redfield had announced Wednesday that hospitals would stop reporting data directly to the CDC. Instead, the data will be controlled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Trump administration officials have said they’re moving away from having the CDC collect the data because it’s been too slow, and hospitals were reporting inadequate data.
A senior HHS official told VICE News it was the CDC's decision to remove the data in the first place. "We're happy to see that the tantrum is over,” the HHS official said.
They also said the department wasn’t informed of the data being stripped from the site prior to its removal, and CDC never lost access to the data. And when HHS found out about the data being removed, the agency ordered that it be put back up, according to the official. The CDC did not immediately respond to request for comment.
HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo told CNBC on Thursday that the coronavirus dashboards would be re-established and that the new system would provide “more powerful insights.”
“Yes, HHS is committed to being transparent with the American public about the information it is collecting on the coronavirus,” he said. “Therefore, HHS has directed CDC to re-establish the coronavirus dashboards it withdrew from the public on Wednesday.”
Other data previously reported to the CDC which was temporarily removed from the site included data on healthcare worker staffing and information on the availability and supply of personal protective equipment, a CDC spokesperson told CNN.
Instead of the National Safety Health Network, the data will now be reported to TeleTracking, a private firm headquartered in Pittsburgh which in April won a $10.2 million, six-month, no-bid contract from HHS to provide “real-time healthcare system capacity reporting.”
Public health experts have been wary of the changes over concerns that they could lead to less transparency from a federal government whose leader has repeatedly said publicly that fewer cases would be reported if less testing was performed.
“Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus [DHHS] is dangerous and breeds distrust,” former Obama administration health official Dr. Nicole Lurie told the New York Times earlier this week.
The change was first made public by Ryan Panchadsaram, who helps run the website COVID Exit Strategy, which is tracking the nation’s coronavirus response. “We were surprised because the modules that we normally go to were empty. The data wasn’t available and not there,” Panchadsaram told CNBC. “There was no warning.”
“Our hope is this loss of critical public health information is temporary,” a Wednesday update on COVID Exit Strategy reads. “HHS is instituting a new process for collecting information from hospitals. The aggregate data from that system should be made public.”
Cover: Evelinda Villegas receives a COVID-19 test at the Whittier Street Health Center's mobile test site, Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Boston's Dorchester section. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)