An HHS-imposed change in how hospitals and states report coronavirus data to the government is drawing fierce criticism from public health groups and congressional Democrats concerned that the Trump administration could manipulate the numbers for political purposes.
Hospitals were told as of Wednesday to stop reporting daily Covid-19 data through the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network and instead funnel it through two HHS systems. The order set off alarm for a broad range of health care groups, including those representing local and state health officials, who questioned why the change was made at a critical point in the pandemic as coronavirus cases spike in more than half the states. A senior Senate Democrat suggested the move could be deliberately intended to sideline public health experts, who’ve increasingly come under attack by the administration.
“CDC has had a system in place for over a decade to track infection data, and hospitals and states know and trust this system,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate health committee. “It’s entirely unclear why the Trump administration has asked states and hospitals to entirely upend their reporting systems in the middle of a pandemic.”
A group of public health experts including former CDC Director Tom Frieden called the change unproductive, noting that Inadequate funding for health data at CDC and local agencies is already hindering a response to Covid-19. The experts said the new reporting system would be complicated to set up, adding that the administration hadn’t consulted with state and local officials ahead of time.
The change comes as some within the administration have questioned CDC’s ability to provide real-time tracking of the pandemic, and after President Donald Trump and others openly criticized the agency for its guidance on reopening public places and schools.
CDC Director Robert Redfield told reporters on a call Wednesday the change was intended to better streamline the data, reduce reporting burdens and obtain better information to enable the department to distribute scarce resources.
But public health experts and researchers see the move as a critical blow to transparency. Some of the health groups questioned whether the change could keep data on racial and ethnic disparities in care from being surfaced while disrupting information officials use to plot efforts to contain disease spread.
The changeover “will halt the flow of crucial information,” said Sandra Shullman, president of the American Psychological Association. “State reporting had been improving with greater federal support. Now is not the time to change established processes.”
An administration official told POLITICO that the CDC still had access to all coronavirus-related data and could use it to populate tools and trackers, like the agency’s hospital capacity map that went offline on Wednesday. “Bottom line is they have no less data, or access to it, today or tomorrow than they did before,” the official said.
A CDC spokesperson confirmed that the hospital capacity map used data collected through the agency’s reporting system and that the displays were pulled down in response to the policy change. The CDC could not immediately say if the displays will be restored, or whether the data will be made publicly available in another format, and referred those questions to HHS.
Dan Diamond, Adam Cancryn and Rachel Roubein contrbuted to this report.