The Trump administration has ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, beginning Wednesday, send all coronavirus patient information to a central database in Washington — a move that has alarmed public health experts who fear the data will be distorted for political gain.
The new instructions are contained in a little-noticed document posted this week on the Department of Health and Human Services’ website. From now on, HHS, and not the CDC, will collect daily reports about the patients that each hospital is treating, how many beds and ventilators are available, and other information vital to tracking the pandemic.
Officials say the change will streamline data gathering and assist the White House coronavirus task force in allocating scarce supplies like personal protective gear and the drug remdesivir. Some hospital officials welcome the move, saying it will relieve them of responding to requests from multiple federal agencies, though others said the CDC should be collecting the data.
“The CDC is the right agency to be at the forefront of collecting the data,” said Dr. Bala Hota, chief analytics officer at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Public health experts have long expressed concerns that the administration is politicizing science and undermining the disease control centers; four former CDC directors, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, said as much in an opinion piece published Tuesday in The Washington Post. The data collection shift reinforced those fears.
“Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust,” said Nicole Lurie, who served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response under former President Barack Obama. “It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like CDC to do its basic job.”
The shift grew out of a tense conference call several weeks ago between hospital executives and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
After Birx complained that hospitals were not adequately reporting their data, she convened a working group of government and hospital officials who devised the new plan, according to Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, who participated.
But news of the change came as a shock inside the CDC, which has long been responsible for gathering public health data, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it. A spokesman for the disease control centers referred questions to the Department of Health and Human Services, which has not responded to a request for comment.
The dispute exposes the vast gaps in the government’s ability to collect and manage health data — an antiquated system at best, experts say.