The White House has issued a directive to the U.S.’s hospitals to bypass the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and “send all coronavirus patient information” straight to a non-public Health and Human Services database in D.C., the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
This appears to have generally alarmed many public health experts paying attention to the White House’s catastrophic handling of the ongoing pandemic, as hospitals will now be reporting their coronavirus data directly to HHS instead of CDC scientists. Documents sent to hospitals state that “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 primary CDC system that currently handles data from some 25,000 U.S. medical institutions, according to the Times.
According to the Times, the change appears to be the result of a conference call weeks ago in which White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told health care executives that hospitals weren’t adequately reporting information. Association of American Medical Colleges chief health care officer Dr. Janis Orlowski told the paper that Birx subsequently worked with a group of both government and industry officials on the new plan, which will be managed by Pittsburgh-based private company TeleTracking. Documents also indicate it involves HHS Protect, which was partially built by Palantir, the ominous cyberintelligence firm founded by Trump ally Peter Thiel. (Disclosure: Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)
Orlowski said that the White House had pledged that coronavirus data sent to the system would continue to be publicly released and she trusted it is a “sincere effort to streamline and improve data collection.” HHS spokesperson Michael R. Caputo told the Times that nothing was going on but a good-faith move to ensure federal agencies have timely access to data. He added that the CDC system wasn’t being abandoned but will be linked to the HHS database.
The CDC “still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data,” while the nation “requires it in real time,” Caputo told the paper. “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.”
It’s true that there have been issues with the CDC’s data reporting. A Government Accountability Office report in June found that its system for recording test results conflated those used to determine whether an individual is currently infected with antibody tests, which only measure whether an individual is producing an immune response to prior exposure to the virus and are known to be unreliable. The report said that decision inflated statistics on how many tests had been performed; per NPR, scientists also warned it could artificially deflate the test positivity rate, one of the data points used by state and local officials to determine public health responses.
More generally, the CDC’s data collection system is fed by a bewildering array of sources ranging from phone calls and faxes to email spreadsheets and relies on antiquated technology. Reporting by the Times in June indicated the CDC could not “produce accurate counts of how many people were being tested, compile complete demographic information on confirmed cases or even keep timely tallies of deaths.”
However, the CDC has also had a rocky relationship with the Trump administration, which has desperately sought to portray the situation as wildly exaggerated by the president’s critics and repeatedly intervened to pressure the CDC over health guidelines that could slow the White House’s push to reopen shuttered stores, businesses, schools, and other institutions across the country. Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory suggesting the “CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most” are lying about the virus to keep the economy shut down and harm his re-election chances this week.
On Tuesday, four former CDC directors wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post accusing the White House of undermining the agency for political reasons, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s demands that schools fully reopen even if they have to ignore some CDC recommendations.
“We’re seeing the terrible effect of undermining the CDC play out in our population,” the former directors wrote. “Willful disregard for public health guidelines is, unsurprisingly, leading to a sharp rise in infections and deaths. America now stands as a global outlier in the coronavirus pandemic.”
According to the Times, the CDC was shocked to learn it is being cut out of the loop. The TeleTracking contract is itself controversial and in part may have originated out of some White House officials’ conviction the CDC was inflating data such as death counts, per the Post. Democratic Senator Patty Murray has stated the contract was the result of a “noncompetitive, multimillion-dollar contract” that may only duplicate current data systems and further confusion about coronavirus stats.
Experts consulted by the Times agreed there is a dire need to centralize and streamline coronavirus statistics, but some expressed concern the White House was further marginalising the CDC and that the new system might not have proper oversight or transparency.
“The CDC is the right agency to be at the forefront of collecting the data,” Dr. Bala N. Hota, chief analytics officer of Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, told the paper.
“Centralising control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust,” former Obama administration assistant secretary for preparedness and response Dr. Nicole Lurie told the Times. “It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like CDC to do its basic job.”