The Trump administration ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and send all COVID-19 patient information to a central database in Washington, starting Wednesday, according to a Health and Human Services document updated July 10.
The handoff had an immediate effect. Wednesday afternoon one of the important CDC pages that tracked changes over time in how many hospital beds in the nation are occupied by COVID-19 patients ceased working. The CDC confirmed the page’s disappearance was a consequence of the switch.
It was first noted by Charles Ornstein from the news non-profit ProPublica.
The data came from the National Healthcare Safety Network, the most widely used hospital infection tracking system in the United States. It is run by the CDC.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said the agency has agreed to remove the NHSN from the collection process in order to streamline reporting.
The disappearance of the site takes away a useful metric of the pandemic for health care workers.
Changes in time of the number of hospital beds being occupied by COVID-19 patients tells public health officials how close to being unable to accept new patients a hospital or a region is, or if things are getting better.
Michael Caputo, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, said in a statement earlier Wednesday the new coronavirus data collection system would be “faster,” and the CDC has a one-week lag in reporting hospital data.
“The President’s Coronavirus Task Force has urged improvements for months, but they cannot keep up with this pandemic,” he said. “Today, the CDC still provides data from only 85 percent of hospitals; the President’s COVID response requires 100 percent to report.”
Caputo added: “The CDC, an operating division of HHS, will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response. They will simply no longer control it.”
Wednesday afternoon, Redfield described the data collection system as a way to streamline the process and make it easier for the nation’s hospitals to get information to state and federal authorities.
“We at CDC know that the life blood of public health is data,” he said. “Collecting, disseminating data as rapidly as possible is our priority and the reason for the policy change we’re discussing today.”
The CDC, along with many federal agencies, has long struggled to provide state-of-the-art data systems with lagging funding and sought to upgrade its systems.
Redfield indicated the change would not be detrimental, saying the new system would streamline the process, reduce duplication and the reporting burden on medical providers and “enable us to distribute the scarce resources, using the best possible approach,” he said.
“We’ve merely streamlined data collection for hospitals on the front lines,” he stressed. “No one is taking access or data away from CDC.”
Public health experts and infectious disease scientists sounded an alarm on the protocols, noting that further politicization of the pandemic will hurt health workers and patients.
“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,” Dr. Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said in a statement.
He said collecting and reporting public health data is a “core function of the CDC,” and bypassing the agency would “undermine our nation’s public health experts.”
“As infectious diseases physicians, front-line providers and scientists, we urge the administration to follow public health expertise in addressing this public health crisis,” File said.
A Tuesday Washington Post op-ed written by four former or acting CDC directors criticized President Donald Trump for “politicizing science.”
“These repeated efforts to subvert sound public health guidelines introduce chaos and uncertainty while unnecessarily putting lives at risk,” they wrote.
During a video meeting Wednesday with the USA TODAY editorial board, one of the authors, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, called the sidelining of the agency “very scary.”
“There is conflict right now between the CDC and the White House,” Satcher said. “Somehow we’ve got to get past the conflict in the interest of saving lives.”
As of Wednesday, the USA surpassed 3.4 million cases and 136,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been 13.3 million cases and more than 579,000 deaths.
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.