Wednesday night, data on the novel coronavirus disappeared from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website — the hub of information for anything and everything COVID-19.
The vanishing was a result of a mandate from President Donald Trump’s administration for hospitals to report data on testing, capacity and patient flow to the Department of Health and Human Services instead of the CDC — effective July 15.
On Thursday, the data reappeared on the agency’s website after receiving pushback from several federal health authorities and medical professionals, according to an anonymous federal health official who spoke with The Washington Post.
But the order remains intact. Now, scientific experts, the public and some politicians worry the sudden shift in data reporting, as well as the politicization of it, could take critical health information away from the public and add burdens to overwhelmed hospitals dealing with surges in coronavirus cases.
“Critical decisions that impact the health and safety of the American people are made based on this data, and the physicians, public health officials, and elected leaders making these decisions must be able to trust the data they are seeing is timely, reliable and actionable,” Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, said Thursday in a statement. “We urge HHS to be transparent and forthcoming about these changes to hospital reporting for COVID-19 infections, so they are understood by all.”
️All COVID hospital data on CDC site is now gone!!! It is now managed by a private contractor who got a $10 million no-bid deal awarded in April. Now it’s all directly controlled by HHS political heads. #COVID19
Epidemiologists are pulling our hair out!https://t.co/rO7C0c1f41 pic.twitter.com/fUj8Ejiuub
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) July 16, 2020
The National Governors Association also released a statement Thursday that urges the Trump administration to delay the changes by 30 days to give hospitals time to reorganize while caring for patients.
“The administration has stated that they plan to utilize this data to better allocate supplies and drugs to states,” the statement read, on behalf of governors from 55 states and territories.
“To ensure the accurate reporting of this data, governors are requesting a 30-day delay of these new requirements, in order for hospitals to learn a new system, as they continue to deal with this pandemic. In addition, governors urge the administration to make this information publicly available,” the statement continued.
Journalists responsible for sharing the latest COVID-19 data and research with the public wrote their own statement the day the order went into effect, calling for transparency on “hospitalizations, availability of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and ICU beds.”
“The removal of such data from the purview of the [CDC] and the failure to make those data immediately available elsewhere are egregious violations of transparency and accessibility during a period when timely access to public health data is critical,” the National Association of Science Writers said.
“Americans must have access to up-to-date and scientifically accurate information that is unfettered by political influence so they can protect their own health while also working to safeguard their families and communities,” the statement read.
The White House stripped the CDC of Data Collection Role for COVID-19. It’s hard not to see this as some kind of interference to manipulate the data and politicize it by pushing a false narrative that the pandemic is no longer a problem. They’re putting human lives at risk! pic.twitter.com/DE0wt2s6Rv
— Kimberly Walker (@kw4congress) July 16, 2020
The CDC has a note on its website saying data collected after July 14 will no longer be updated there, and redirects the public to the report released by the HHS for updated guidance on hospital COVID-19 reporting.
The agency provides another note that says the data on its page was sent directly there, “and does not include data submitted to other entities contracted by or within the federal government.”
In defense, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo said the CDC’s system was too slow in a statement shared with reporters, according to NPR.
“The CDC’s old data gathering operation once worked well monitoring hospital information across the country, but it’s an inadequate system today,” Caputo said. “The President’s Coronavirus Task Force has urged improvements for months, but they just cannot keep up with this pandemic.”
Caputo also told The Washington Post that the CDC’s decision to take down COVID-19 data was done in a “fit of pique.”
“The idea CDC scientists cannot rely upon their colleagues in the same department for data collection, or any other scientific work, is preposterous.” The HHS oversees the CDC.
But experts involved in medicine and science policy don’t agree.
“Surveillance benefits from being integrated — to be able to see multiple data streams in the same place, to be able to compare them,” Jennifer Nuzzo, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NPR. “When they’re captured by completely separate systems by completely separate agencies … it will be harder to make comparisons and to do the deeper analysis — trying to understand if, say, rising cases are contributing to rising hospitalizations or vice versa.”
CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said, “What logic does this have, other than to take away the data from the epidemiologists that are the best in the world at looking at this data, making sense of it, translating it for people, versus giving it to HHS,” he said Wednesday on the outlet’s “New Day” program.