In the past, public information has disappeared from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website after the Trump administration quietly shifted control of the information to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Since the pandemic began, the CDC has regularly published data on the availability of hospital beds and intensive care across the country. But when Ryan Panchadsaram, who helps run a data tracking website called Covid Exit Strategy, said that when he tried to collect data from the CDC on Tuesday, it had disappeared.
“We were surprised because the modules we normally go to were empty. The information was not available and not there,”
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said on Wednesday in a conference call with reporters that the states were told to stop sending hospital information to the website National Healthcare Safety Network, the CDC’s data collection system, starting Wednesday. Instead, all information will now be reported via HHS’s reporting portal, officials said, adding that the decision was made to streamline data reporting and to provide HHS officials with real-time data.
Public health specialists and former health representatives acknowledged the limitations of the CDC’s data reporting infrastructure and said it needed to be reviewed to meet the requirements of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, they expressed concern in interviews with CNBC that the change could lead to less transparent data.
When contacted by CNBC for comment by CNBC, HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said in a statement that the CDC has been directed to make the information available again. He added that in the future, “more powerful insights” will be provided by HHS.
“Yes, HHS is committed to being transparent with the American public about the information it collects about coronavirus,” he said. “Therefore, HHS has instructed the CDC to restore the coronavirus dashboards that it withdrew from the public on Wednesday.”
Representatives of the CDC did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
On the CDC website where data on available hospital beds and ICUs was previously stored, a note now reads, “Data shown on this page was sent directly to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) and does not include data submitted to other entities contracted by or within the federal government. “
“We do not have this critical indicator anymore,” Panchadsaram said. “The intention is to just switch data streams to HHS, that’s fine. But you need to keep the data you share publicly still available and up to date.”
Panchadsaram said he and his team, which includes researchers from the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and from Resolve to Save Lives, a public health initiative led by former CDC director Dr Tom Frieden, have been tracking the data since April.
Panchadsaram thinks of the project as something of a “tsar of progress” when they rate different states on the overall progress they have made in the fight against Covid-19. Available hospital beds and ICU capacity are an important indicator they use to assess conditions, he added.
“It’s disappointing. It happened much faster than expected,” he said. “The image we present to the world is incomplete.”
Other coronavirus researchers and public health specialists expressed concern that political changes were announced so suddenly in the midst of a public health crisis that seems to be worsening.
Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, who runs one of the most popular third-party coronavirus dashboards, said policy changes will not affect the Hopkins Web site because they have been able to source their data directly from states.
“What worries me is that we seem to be pushing pretty pretty suddenly in the middle of what feels like a very urgent time when it comes to growing cases that we see across the country,” she told CNBC. “The question is, what are we going to lose in this transition, and especially in a moment where we really do not want to lose any ability to understand what is happening in the hospital.”
Nuzzo expressed concern that the administration did not seem to fully plan how the transition in data reporting would work and did not give hospitals or researchers a warning about the change or how it could affect them.
“I think it is reasonable to worry that it could lead to capacity erosion at a time when we very much can not afford to lose any capabilities at this point,” she added. “I do not fully understand how it will work. That in itself is problematic.”