‘Sole Source’ Contract for Covid-19 Database Draws Scrutiny From Democrats

WASHINGTON — A $10.2 million “sole source” contract to run a centralized Covid-19 database for the Trump administration drew sharp criticism on Wednesday from congressional Democrats, who demanded that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be reinstated as the primary repository of coronavirus data.

The contract drew scant public attention when it was awarded in April to TeleTracking Technologies, a Pittsburgh company whose core business is helping hospitals manage the flow of patients. But it drew scrutiny after the administration ordered hospitals, beginning on Wednesday, to report coronavirus information, including bed availability, to the new database, housed at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, instead of to the C.D.C.

Two top federal health officials — Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, and José Arrieta, the chief information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services — defended the decision in a conference call with reporters, saying that the new database was necessary to expedite and streamline data, which is used to help the government make decisions about where to deploy personal protective gear or drugs like remdesivir.

Dr. Redfield said C.D.C. experts would still have access to the data. “This access is the same today as it was yesterday,” he said.

But the officials had no explanation for the TeleTracking contract, which was awarded on a sole-source basis, federal records show. Mr. Arrieta said he was not involved in the contract negotiations. The company did not respond to emails seeking comment.

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Updated 2020-07-16T14:17:31.093Z

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Senate health panel, has been seeking an explanation for the contract, which she argues is duplicative because the C.D.C. already had its own data-gathering system, the National Healthcare Safety Network.

“C.D.C. has had a system in place for over a decade to track infection data, and hospitals and states know and trust this system,” Ms. Murray said Wednesday in a statement. “So it’s entirely unclear why the Trump administration has asked states and hospitals to upend their reporting systems in the middle of a pandemic — in 48 hours nonetheless — without a single explanation as to why this new system is better or necessary.”

Another top Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, told reporters in Hoboken that if the administration did not reverse itself and put the C.D.C. back in charge, “we will look at withholding funding until the administration changes course.”

The switch in reporting exposed deep flaws in the way the government collects health data, and the C.D.C. has been no stranger to criticism. Congress has long been asking the agency to modernize its data collection, and passed laws in 2006, 2013 and 2019 requiring a system that could collect data in near-real time.

The C.D.C. has yet to establish such a system, which would spare hospital employees from having to enter data manually. But the TeleTracking system also requires manual entry, said Dr. Lissy Hu, the chief executive of CarePort Health, a technology firm. She said the new arrangement made little sense.

“This whole thing is bizarre,” she said. “The White House is saying collecting real-time information is problematic, and I agree with that. But with TeleTracking, it’s still going to be manual entry, so how is that better than the current manual entry system?”

TeleTracking’s core business is helping hospitals manage bed space. But the Department of Health and Human Services had a bed-tracking system, called HAvBED, that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That system is no longer in use because states viewed the requirement to report bed space as burdensome and federal officials realized the data was “static, lagging” and thus of little use, said Dr. Dan Hanfling, an expert in emergency preparedness and a vice president at In-Q-Tel, a strategic investment firm.

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“This issue is not just about H.H.S. versus C.D.C. — it is that we have outdated data collection systems that aren’t automated, are burdensome on health care providers, and don’t give you real-time situational awareness,” Dr. Hanfling said.

Still, the administration’s decision to take control of hospital data away from the C.D.C. and centralize it in Washington drew an outcry from public health experts who worried that the data would be politicized or withheld from the public. Academics, modelers and state and local officials rely on the C.D.C. data to track the movement of the virus and make crucial decisions about when to reopen.

Addressing concerns about transparency, Mr. Arrieta said the Department of Health and Human Services was considering giving members of Congress access to the new database and was “exploring the best way” to make information from it available to the public, including to news organizations and academic researchers.

Dr. Redfield said he wanted to make data more “externally facing” and accessible to the public, so Americans could see “the current extent of the pandemic in different counties and in different ZIP codes.”

Chris Hamby contributed reporting.

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