When the U.S. federal government put the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of hospital data aggregation instead of its subsidiary, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, critics feared that the Trump administration might be trying to stifle news to keep the public in the dark about how bad the pandemic actually was. Those concerns only got worse when that data stopped being made public as it became available.
And guess what: Their suspicions were correct! Is it sad that I’m not even surprised anymore? Just tired. Very, very tired.
The news came to light this week after someone with insider knowledge reportedly leaked the government’s daily reports on covid-19 hospitalisation to NPR. These updates document nationwide trends in hospitalisations of covid-19 patients, highlighting where facilities are reaching capacity or are under stress for lack of beds, ventilators, or other equipment. According to NPR, the reports show that hospital occupancy, ventilator usage, and ICU bed occupancy have been steadily increasing over the month of October, with an Oct. 27 report revealing that all three have shot up by 14%-16% this month.
Hospitals around the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Baltimore appear especially stretched thin, reporting over 80% full capacity for in-patient hospital beds. And the situation’s even worse in cities like Tampa, Birmingham, and New York: facilities there are struggling with 95% ICU capacity and could soon run out of intensive care beds.
While the U.S. federal government has gathered this information on a daily basis throughout the pandemic, these stats aren’t shared with the public. A distribution list of these documents reviewed by NPR showed that they only went out to a few dozen staffers from the HHS, CDC, and the National Institutes of Health along with one member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Adm. Brett Giroir. I can’t stress enough that these are literally daily health-related updates; that’s an awful lot of data to claim that the public doesn’t need to know.
HHS told NPR that 800 state health officials can access these reports for their own state, but must be granted permission from another state to view its data. The outlet notes that these arbitrary restrictions do a fat lot of good for places where emergency services frequently have to cross state lines, like in Tennessee, which shares its border with eight other states.
“Hospitals in Tennessee serve patients who are from Arkansas and Mississippi and Kentucky and Georgia and vice versa, and so we’re a little bit blind to what’s going on there,” said Melissa McPheeters, co-director of the Centre for Improving the Public’s Health through Informatics at Vanderbilt University, in an interview with NPR. “When we see hospitals that are particularly near those state borders having increases, one of the things we can’t tell is: Is that because hospitals in an adjacent state are full? What’s going on there? And that could be a really important piece of the picture.”
With the U.S. now seeing record-breaking numbers of new cases, even surpassing previous surges in the spring and summer, public health and data experts told NPR that federal transparency is more important than ever to developing an effective response plan and possibly saving lives.
“At this point, I think it’s reckless. It’s endangering people,” said Ryan Panchadsaram, co-founder of the COVID Exit Strategy website and a former data official in the Obama administration, in an interview with the outlet. “We’re now in the third wave, and I think our only way out is really open, transparent and actionable information.”
Panchadsaram said that the HHS is sitting on vital information that could prove incredibly useful to researchers and health leaders. Most importantly, health data at this scale simply isn’t available anywhere else.
“That stuff isn’t easy to find at a national level. There’s no one place [publicly] you can go to get all that data,” he told the outlet.
For its part, the HHS said that it’s committed to being as transparent as possible while still preserving privacy. As far as whose privacy exactly it wants to protect, your guess is as good as mine. Screenshots of the reports shared by NPR didn’t appear to contain any personal information about the patients at each hospital.
“HHS and the White House Coronavirus Task Force utilise hospital capacity data to gain greater insights into how COVID-19 is spreading and impacting the population, and to better inform response efforts like staff deployments and supply shipments,” an HHS spokesperson told NPR.
As depressing as it is to say, none of this news comes as any surprise. The HHS officials that Trump has installed have already been caught red-handed trying to water down health updates from the CDC and smearing the organisation as some sort of “deep state” cabal against Trump. Turns out, reporting on the scores of covid-19 cases and deaths that could have potentially been prevented with demonstrably effective health precautions is an attempt to “hurt the U.S. President.”