- On Wednesday, US hospitals stopped directly reporting coronavirus capacity, staffing, and supply-related data to the CDC.
- Instead, they now send information directly to the US Department of Health and Human Services, through a newer database, built with several private contractors.
- HHS and CDC maintain that they can both still see and share all the same data.
- But the information is now hidden from public view.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On Wednesday, hospitals across the country abruptly stopped telling the US Centres for Disease Control how many beds they have available, and how many are filling up with coronavirus patients.
The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services, the arm of the federal government that oversees the CDC, will now keep data in a more secretive, newer database built with private contractors, called HHS Protect, instead of sending such information directly to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).
“No one is taking access or data away from CDC,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said on a call with reporters Wednesday, discussing the shift. “Approximately a thousand CDC experts have and will continue to have access to the raw data collected by the HHS Protect.”
But access to that data for the general public, and anyone who hasn’t been security-screened, in person, by HHS employees, has been cut off.
“Every single individual that accesses HHS Protect is authenticated,” HHS Chief Information Officer Jose Arrieta, whose office runs Protect, said on the call Wednesday. “That means a civilian member of the HHS staff actually meets with them, checks their passport and ID, and allows them access to the system.”
Several of the CDC’s public data dashboards, which previously displayed hospital capacity estimates across much of the country, and showed – to anyone with a working internet connection – where the percentage of inpatient hospital beds across the country was dwindling as the coronavirus spreads, and the number of COVID-19 cases rise, are now defunct.
This is what the dashboards looked like on Wednesday night and Thursday morning:
“Effective July 15, 2020, hospitals will no longer report COVID-19 capacity, staffing, and supply-related data to CDC’s NHSN,” a CDC press officer told Business Insider in an email. “Thus, NHSN hospital-reported COVID-19 data summaries will no longer be provided.”
By Thursday afternoon, the CDC had rewound its dashboards to show the agency’s last available data sets from July 14, but the CDC noted that files and maps will “not be updated” by the agency anymore, and that HHS is taking control of US hospitals’ COVID-19 reporting.
The CDC and HHS both maintain that the shift will cut down on reporting work for hospitals, make the federal coronavirus surveillance system less clunky, and make it easier for first responders around the country to see, in real time, where coronavirus cases are surging, and better forecast where disease outbreaks may be heading next.
Former CDC insiders are worried the agency’s getting sidelined
But former CDC insiders remain concerned.
“It’s another example of CDC being sidelined,” former acting CDC Director Richard Besser told CNN. “Not only should the data be coming to CDC, but CDC should be talking to the public through the media every day.”
HHS is contracting with private companies on the project, including Palantir, a software company cofounded by investor and Trump associate Peter Thiel, and Pittsburgh-based health system software company TeleTracking.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray raised alarm bells about the shift away from the CDC’s more public system last month, blasting the HHS for awarding TeleTracking a $US10 million, 6-month contract for its work on a “duplicative” system.
“Over 60 per cent of the nation’s hospitals were reporting daily, through the NHSN COVID-19 module,” Murray said in a letter sent to the CDC and HHS on June 3.
“Amid a pandemic that calls for robust data on both COVID-19 and the US response to it, critical data remain out of reach to communities working to mitigate the pandemic and planning their response.”
HHS could still, if the agency chose, make the data on Protect publicly available, but it hasn’t yet.
“We have the ability to share data with the public via HHS Protect,” Arrieta told reporters on Wednesday, adding that the data is currently available to members of the CDC, and to “first responders at the state level.”
“We’re exploring the best way to make this information available to the public,” he said.
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