Health Experts Fear COVID Data Will Be Hidden From Public After Trump Orders Hospitals to Bypass CDC

Under the terms of a new federal order, hospitals are now required to submit COVID-19 data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services instead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some health experts are concerned about the switch. Speaking to The New York Times on Tuesday, various officials noted that requiring hospitals to report information to a government entity risks partisan manipulation of data. They also pointed out that the Health Department's database, where hospitals will submit numbers related to COVID-19 patients, resources and capacities, is not publicly accessible.

"Only the CDC has the expertise to collect data. I think any move to take responsibility away from the people who have the expertise is politicizing," said Florida congresswoman and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in comments to the Times.

Previously, more 25,000 medical facilities across the U.S. reported daily COVID-19 figures to the National Healthcare Safety Network, an online surveillance system operated by the CDC. The CDC routinely published data collected through the system online.

"As of July 15, 2020, hospitals should no longer report the COVID-19 information in this document to the National Healthcare Safety Network site," read the Health and Human Services Department's new instructions, originally outlined in a July 10 press release.

Jen Kates, the director of global health and HIV policy at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, said new federal reporting protocols raise questions about authenticity and potential barriers to information.

"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," Kates told the Times.

Regarding the amended, government-run collection method, she asked: "How will the data be protected? Will there be transparency, will there be access, and what is the role of the CDC in understanding the data?"

COVID-19 Unit, Houston hospital
Health care workers prepare to re-enter the COVID-19 unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on July 2. Hospitals across the U.S. are now required to report data related to the coronavirus directly to the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Health and Human Services Department, said its tracking system will be linked with the CDC's going forward and the CDC will continue publishing the data.

"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 in a statement obtained by Newsweek on Wednesday.

"The new faster and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus, and the CDC, an operating division of HHS, will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response," the statement continued. "They will simply no longer control it."

The Health and Human Services Department's recent order also gives medical centers the option to report data to state officials "if they have received a written release from the State and the State has received written certification from their ASPR Regional Administrator to take over Federal reporting responsibilities." ASPR refers to the assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

The state would then submit the information to the Health and Human Services Department. The ASPR office, a branch of that department, oversees the national response to public health emergencies.

Newsweek reached out to the CDC for comments but did not receive a reply in time for publication. The White House had no comment.

This story was updated to include a statement from Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Health and Human Services Department.