The White House Shifts Control of Coronavirus Data Away From CDC
The Trump administration ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and send information about COVID-19 to a central database controlled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), starting July 15.
The move came as a shock to many health experts as the CDC has long been the agency where pandemic data has been submitted. However, the administration issued the policy change after discussions with hospitals and government task forces highlighted how cumbersome current data-submission processes are.
The government also hopes that by keeping the process streamlined, data will be more easily accessible to agencies other than just the CDC, including groups like the Coronavirus Task Force. That would allow the task force to better handle the pandemic and better allocate scarce resources like ventilators and redeliver – a drug that is known to help reduce the recovery time of COVID-19.
The move to redirect which agency handles coronavirus information stemmed from a July 10 memo that laid out what Wednesday’s new rules would be. According to that HHS memo, back in late March, Vice-President Mike Pence sent a letter to hospitals across the U.S. asking them to send daily reports about the pandemic. It adds that since then, many government agencies have asked for similar information.
The administration claims that hospitals complained about how many different agencies were asking for information, adding that it was distracting administrators from actual hospital duties. Following these complaints, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, set up a call with hospital administrators and groups that represent hospitals to come up with a new plan.
Ultimately that call and other discussions led to the July 10 memo and Wednesday’s updates to how coronavirus data is collected.
Why Take Data Away?
The move to switch COVID-19 data collection away from the semi-independent CDC and to the politically appointed HHS was a cause of concern for many. The largest complaint is that it’s moving the information away from experts who specialize in disease management and control.
Moving the information away from the experts has led to accusations that the administration is politicizing the science. Such an accusation was made on Tuesday in an open letter from the past heads of the CDC, both Democrat, and Republican.
Dr. Nicole Lurie, former assistant secretary for preparedness and response during President Barack Obama’s administration, told The New York Times, “Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust,”adding, “It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like C.D.C. to do its basic job.”
This leads to another possible issue: that information won’t be made available. Like Dr. Lurie stated, there are fears the CDC and other groups will be blocked from the information. Jen Kates, Director of Global Health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation also raised concerns to The New York Times.
“Historically, C.D.C. has been the place where public health data has been sent, and this raises questions about not just access for researchers but access for reporters, access for the public to try to better understand what is happening with the outbreak,” Kates said.
“How will the data be protected? Will, there be transparency, will there be access, and what is the role of the C.D.C. in understanding the data?”
Streamlining the Data
However, despite concerns, there are experts who think the decision is a good idea.
The CDC’s system is called the National Healthcare Safety Network and it’s known for being cumbersome and slow. On top of that, the guidelines for what data and how to submit it constantly changes, frustrating hospital administrators who have to report the data over and over again to a ton of different agencies who have shifting guidelines.
The new system, which is managed by TeleTracking, a health data firm in Pittsburgh, is supposed to remove some of those redundancies, partly by using one standardized submission form. Additionally, If hospitals report to their state, and that state then sends the info to HHS, the hospital can get a waiver and skip sending it to HHS themselves. Officials within the administration, like Michael R. Caputo, the Health and Human Services spokesman, explained the problem like this: “Today, the C.D.C. still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data. America requires it in real time.”
Critics still point to one possible issue with this explanation, both systems use to push data. Push data means both databases require hospitals, states, and agencies to actually input the data themselves and send it to the HHS. However, the July 10 memo does state that there are plans to automate the process, something the CDC has struggled to do for years.
Caputo tried to calm fears that the information was going to be locked away from the CDC and the public, saying, “The new, faster and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus, and the C.D.C., an operating division of H.H.S., will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response. They will simply no longer control it.”
He also went on to specifically say that the data would be available to the public. That information was also backed up by Dr. Birx, who gave assurances to hospital administrators back when this whole system was being set up that the info would be public.
Some doctors took the assurance at face value, like Dr. Janis Orlowski, who told The New York Times, “We are comfortable with [the switch] as long as they continue to work with us, as long as they continue to make the information public, and as long as we’re able to continue to advise them and look at the data.”
She also believes the switch is “a sincere effort to streamline and improve data collection.’’
However, as of Wednesday afternoon, there’s no data coming out at all. The New York Times reports, “the Health and Human Services database that will receive new information is not open to the public, which could affect the work of scores of researchers, modelers and health officials who rely on C.D.C. data to make projections and crucial decisions.”
There’s a key distinction there; the difference between the information being made public down the line, and having direct access to the database itself. The lack of data could be because the HHS system just went online as of July 15 and hospitals have yet to begin submitting their information.
It remains to be seen if HHS will be at the CDC timeline of “at least a week” to get the data about COVID-19 out, and whether or not it’ll be available to the public.