Undermining the CDC Puts Lives at Risk
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the midst of a devastating pandemic, President Donald Trump is destroying the CDC’s ability to discharge its most vital responsibility: to maintain active surveillance of diseases by gathering, analyzing and reporting data. Even by this president’s low standards, this is unconscionable.
With Covid-19 surging out of control and health-care workers in many states struggling to keep up with the patient load, the president has authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to demand that hospitals change the way they report data to the federal government. Stop sending statistics on patient numbers, bed availability, ventilators and other key data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency said, and instead direct the information to HHS headquarters in Washington. Oh, and make this change within two days.
Don’t mistake this new policy for a bureaucratic adjustment of no great significance, or just one more effort by the Trump administration to annoy its critics. It’s much worse than that. This change is so reckless — make no mistake: people will die as a result — it borders on criminality.
It isn’t the first time that President Trump’s administration has sidelined the CDC, a public health institution that has been a model for the world. Administration officials have often questioned the agency’s guidance, including on mask-wearing and school reopening, and have gone so far as to accuse it of “undermining the president” in advising pregnant women of the risks of Covid-19. Robert Redfield, the current CDC director, has not conducted the kind of regular press briefings that, in a normal administration, give the public accurate information on disease outbreaks. On Friday, it blocked CDC officials from appearing at a House committee hearing on school reopenings.
But this latest change is the most destructive so far. The CDC’s long-established National Healthcare Safety Network, the biggest and most-used infection-tracking system in the U.S., is trusted for the accuracy and completeness of its data. Until recently, it gathered the Covid-19 hospital statistics, analyzed them and reported back to the states twice a week. Now, the HHS has turned the job over to a Pittsburgh company, TeleTracking Technologies, which is to be paid more than $10 million, with no guarantee that the information will be made public.
HHS officials have informally indicated they will share the data, at least with hospitals. But public-health experts, state officials and hospital administrators are right to worry that it won’t be fully accessible. This administration has shown it’s more than willing to withhold and manipulate information, including on how coronavirus stimulus money has been spent. Trump has even called for slowing down coronavirus testing as a way of lowering the U.S. case count — an obscenely blatant attempt to bury data that can save lives.
The ridiculous rationale HHS officials have given for the abrupt change is that they need to streamline data-gathering, and they need the data to come in faster to better help them allocate resources for hospitals, including any new drugs and treatments yet to be developed. If this were true, the answer would be to improve data collection within the CDC, not to change the system in a way that lets data be controlled and manipulated. There’s no rationale beyond politics, and the administration’s attempts to explain itself only add insult to injury. Redfield says that “no one is taking data or access away from the CDC.” Really? Hospitals have been specifically instructed to stop sending information to the agency.
Congressional Democrats have rightly demanded this outrageous maneuver be reversed. This pandemic is very far from under control — in fact, it has only been getting worse in many parts of the country. Allowing the administration to get away with this would be unforgivable.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and a Global Ambassador for the World Health Organization, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
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