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As Trump sidelines CDC, public health officials slam ‘politicization’ of coronavirus

As Trump sidelines CDC, public health officials slam ‘politicization’ of coronavirus
[Photo: Tia Dufour/The White House/Flickr]

Per the White House, hospital data on COVID-19 patients will now be sent straight to the Trump administration, skipping its typical first stop at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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That’s according to a July 10 document from the Department of Health and Human Services, which will now receive hospitals’ daily reports on numbers of patients, beds, and ventilators, and other coronavirus tracking data. “As of July 15, 2020, hospitals should no longer report the Covid-19 information in this document to the National Healthcare Safety Network site [CDC database],” said the department. Instead they should report the data to the state or a federal contractor, both of whom will route it to the HHS database—which, unlike the CDC database, is not freely open to the public.

HHS spokesman Michael Caputo told the New York Times that the new rules would speed up data gathering, citing a lag of “at least a week” in the CDC’s reporting system. But many health officials are criticizing the move, citing concerns for the loss of transparency of critical coronavirus data.

That loss could occur at multiple points in the new system, if the data travels through a third-party contractor, and if it is kept under lock and key at its final stop.

“Historically, CDC has been the place where public health data has been sent, and this raises questions about not just access for researchers but access for reporters, access for the public to try to better understand what is happening with the outbreak,” Jen Kates, a global health director at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Times. Many public health analysts, forecasters, and policymakers currently rely on CDC data to make projections and crucial healthcare decisions.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a former Surgeon General candidate for Barack Obama, said the changes would “lead to more opaqueness.” On a CNN show this morning, he asked, “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?”

While Caputo said the CDC “will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response” and will continue to make data publicly accessible, there appears to be no plan for that yet. And in the government document outlining the changes, the directive to bypass CDC reporting pops off the page in underscored font.

The move comes amid long-running accusations that the president could be undermining coronavirus control efforts by politicizing the global pandemic. Yesterday four former CDC directors published an op-ed in the Washington Post slamming the Trump administration for its public discrediting of CDC guidelines. And reports over the past months have suggested fraught relations between the administration and health officials, hinting at high-level power struggles with the CDC and the National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Josh Knauer, a former White House adviser on data gathering, cautioned against such politicization, telling Fast Company that the new system is “very dangerous.”

“Tracking this data accurately is essential to the restoration of our economy and the safeguarding of human health,” he said in an emailed statement. “Pushing the process into the dark depths of private data brokers with political agendas is the very antithesis of American values of transparency and open data access.”

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