A little over a month after taking control over coronavirus data collection away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the White House is giving it back, according to the Wall Street Journal.
‘CDC is working with us right now to build a revolutionary new data system so it can be moved back to the CDC, and they can have that regular accountability with hospitals relevant to treatment and PPE,’ said Dr Deborah Birx, coronavirus task force coordinator, while speaking with hospital chiefs and government officials in Arkansas this week.
She claimed that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) database to which information on COVID-19 hospitalizations and resources was abruptly moved in July was ‘solely an interim system.’
The Trump administration faced accusations of a cover-up after it ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and send data on hospitalized COVID-19 patients straight to the HHS database, which was deemed ‘secretive’ by doctors because it was only accessible by request.
CDC Director Robert Redfield said bluntly in a statement following the swift shift of data that ‘no one is taking access or data away from CDC.’
While the CDC still theoretically had access to the data, collected through the HHS Protect system, the public no longer did.
Hospitalization data briefly disappeared from the public-facing CDC portal last month, then was replaced with a notice that the site would no longer be updated.
Amid outcry, the data was returned to the portal, but was no longer under the management of the CDC.
Subsequent updates were sporadic, the data was inconsistent, and frustration abounded among scientists and public health officials trying to keep up with the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, it seems, management of the unwieldy tracking of an even more unwieldy health crisis will be returned – as unceremoniously as it was taken – to the CDC, a national public health agency with decades of experience doing just that.
Dr Deborah Birx, coronavirus task force coordinator, said the COVID-19 database will be returned to the CDC while speaking with officials in Arkansas this week (pictured)
The HHS also echoed Birx’s statement in emailed comments to the Wall Street Journal, saying the department was working on (another) new data system, in collaboration with the CDC.
Meanwhile, a Congressional subcommittee had been assembled to investigate whether the prior move to an HHS portal had been a politically motivated one.
It also follows the quick exit of Jose Arrieta the HHS data chief at the helm of the HHS Protect system. He left his post on Friday citing a desire for more time with his children.
Arietta was hird precisely because of his expertise in data security and privacy and came to be in charge of the COVID-19 database seen by many as secretive. f
‘The Trump administration is trying to hide their failures, but that only makes it harder for us to fight this virus,’ Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, said on Twitter after the database was moved to HHS Protect.
Arrieta insisted his priorities were aligned with the CDC’s.
Journalist CHarles Ornstein was among the first on Twitter to note the temporary disappearance of the CDC’s public database
‘Every leader at HHS shares Director Redfield and CDC’s desire for building a much strong public health data system to counter other health threats in the long term, and we look forward to working with partners across the federal government and HHS to do that in the future,’ said Arrieta.
The HHS database is available only to authorized users, and and the CDC’s publicly viewable site will no longer display current hospitalization data.
The HHS itself does not have a platform through which it shares its data with the public, one of CDC’s crucial functions, raising concerns about transparency and the potential for the federal government to wield too much control over COVID-19 data.
‘Why would you blind the CDC to hospital data? There’s no reason to do it unless you’re afraid of what the data shows and want to control it,’ New York University bioethicist Dr Arthur Caplan told DailyMail.com.
Amid growing tensions between the White House and the CDC, including its director, Dr Robert Redfield (pictured), the Department of Health and Human Services told US hospitals they should no longer send COVID-19 data to the CDC last month
Between Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, the CDC’s site showing how many hospital beds were occupied by coronavirus patients went blank (pictured) before it was repopulated with information from July 14 and a note that it would no longer be updated
Officials said their aim is to streamline data gathering and analysis and fix lags that have plagued the CDC’s reporting efforts.
An HHS memo says that Vice President Mike Pence’s directive for hospitals to send data directly to the federal government on a daily basis will ensure that resources like remdesivir, ventilators and PPE are allocated as needed.
‘As of July 15, 2020, hospitals should no longer report the Covid-19 information in this document to the National Healthcare Safety Network site.’
The National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) is the CDC’s infection tracking system, which it says is the largest in the country.
HHS CIO Jose Arrieta said that the HHS and its partners are working to build a strong public health data system and will do so ‘in the future’
NHSN was set up to surveil hospital-associated infections – those that commonly occur in and spread quickly through hospitals, such as MRSA – but anid the pandemic it provided a scaffolding for tracking resources used to treat coronavirus patients and protect healthcare workers.
CDC shares data collected through the NHSN not only with the federal government but other facilities, states, regions and the public with information about what is occurring in hospitals and what is needed within them.
Instead, the HHS offers four alternative ways for hospitals to report data to the HHS. They can share data with their states and authorize them to send data to the HHS, use a direct reporting platform called TeleTracking.
Despite the size of the network, ‘today, the CDC still provides data from only 85 percent of hospitals; the President’s COVID response requires 100 percent to report,’ Michael Caputo, an HHS spokesperson told USA Today.
The CDC has struggled to keep up with coronavirus data, but in recent weeks its metrics, including case counts (pictured), have aligned closely with other tracking groups’
But how, exactly, the new system ensured a greater percentage of hospitals report data remains unclear.
‘I don’t see the move encouraging in any way better or more accurate reporting,’ New York University medical ethicist Dr Arthur Caplan told DailyMail.com at the time.
‘It seems to be just an attempt to take it away from the CDC…[the HHS] didn’t put in any incentives or penalties’ to ensure more consistent data reporting, he added.
It comes as tensions between the White House and CDC have continued to build.
‘It’s more than a technical shift, it’s making it difficult for the cdc to know what’s going on and make recommendations accordingly.
‘Since the White House doesn’t like the CDC, they’ve come up with a way to cope with them by undermining [the agency].’
Lags in data reporting and testing have plagued the US response to coronavirus – but experts are skeptical that the HHS’s new system will improve matters
President Trump has reportedly criticized and complained about the CDC behind closed doors. His coronavirus task force also abruptly took over updates to the public in March, kicking off a three-month silence from the agency.
Before it was walked back, the move to a less accessible database represented ‘a continuing effort by the White House to lie its way out of the pandemic by muzzline experts like Fauci, ignoring their self-appointed advisory task force’ – which has been conspicuously less in the public eye in recent weeks – ‘pretending that things are fine when the pandemic continues to spiral out of control in many parts of the country,’ said Dr Caplan.
‘They’re claiming that testing is the cause of continued outbreaks which is blatantly ridiculous and now trying to hide information away from the CDC; it’s basically that pattern amounts to culpable indifference to the deaths of Americans.’
HHS did not immediately respond to request for comment from DailyMail.com.