Hospitals to Redirect Covid Data to HHS in Move to ‘Streamline’

Hospitals will redirect their Covid 19-related data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rather than submitting it to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a move the agencies said was aimed to improve information gathering and resource allocation.

“It became clear we needed a central way to make data available,” Jose Arrieta, HHS’s chief information officer, said on a press call on Wednesday. The goal is to better “allocate resources in real time.”

The change was announced in updated guidance posted on the HHS website late last week but not widely noticed until the New York Times reported on it the day before it took effect. That raised questions from skeptics about whether it’s meant to obscure bad news about how the country is handling the pandemic, or to undermine the CDC, which has been a frequent target of criticism from President Donald Trump.

“The head of HHS should stand up and say this is unacceptable,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Infectious Diseases division at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The administration doesn’t like the fact that this virus is out of control, so the initial thought was ‘Let’s do less testing.’ And now it’s ‘Let’s change the data.’”

Arrieta and CDC Director Robert Redfield, who joined him on the call, pushed back on such concerns. Redfield said his agency proposed the change as a way to streamline the system. “No one is taking data or access away from the CDC,” he said. “This has no effect on CDC’s ability to use data and turn out daily data.”

Can’t Manipulate

As for concerns about the integrity of the database, the data can’t be manipulated, given the broad range of elements that are collected, Arrieta said. “If someone were to try to change the data outside the system, a record of that would be made.”

The data concerns statistics such as intensive-care capacity and bed utilization. By bringing it into the HHS database, the White House Coronavirus Task Force will be better able to reallocate resources quickly where they’re most needed, according to the HHS guidance.

The CDC database was often delayed with updating information, forcing decision-makers to use data from a tracker run by the Johns Hopkins University, a former administration official said. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, was impatient after months of asking for the system to be improved and insisted they find another solution, the former official said.

Moving responsibility for the data up the chain to HHS will bring higher-level staff into the effort, and should increase the resources devoted to it as other agencies will also be more involved, another former administration official said.

“The Task Force has repeatedly said that our response efforts are driven by the data, and those response efforts are hindered when a significant amount of hospitals are not reporting data to the federal government,” according to a statement from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, who runs the task force. “This has nothing to do with the CDC or any other agency.”

Public Access?

However the Infectious Diseases Society of America called the change “troubling,” given the CDC has built up the expertise and infrastructure to handle and study such data.

“Placing medical data collection outside of the leadership of public health experts could severely weaken the quality and availability of data, add an additional burden to already overwhelmed hospitals and add a new challenge to the U.S. pandemic response,” IDSA President Thomas File Jr. said in a statement Wednesday.

As for ensuring the public, journalists, public officials and health experts still are able to view the data, both Arrieta and Redfield said they’re working to ensure it’s available. HHS is also working with Congress so elected officials can see the data. No information was given on when that would happen or how often the information will be updated.

The CDC pages tracking hospital capacity now say “this content isn’t available.”

That’s causing concern for some groups outside the government who are worried the change will make it harder to find reliable information on what’s happening. One tracking site, covidexitstrategy.org, lost access to data on ICUs and beds, according to a statement on its website Wednesday.

“Our hope is this loss of critical public health information is temporary,” the site posted. “HHS is instituting a new process for collecting information from hospitals. The aggregate data from that system should be made public.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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