The White House is now requiring hospitals around the country to change how they report data on COVID-19 patients in a move that effectively bypasses the nation’s largest public health agency. In a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency mandated that hospitals send information on their COVID-19 patients directly to a database managed by HHS rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The order outlining the alteration claims it will help federal agencies move from manual data entry to automated, which would streamline the collection and dissemination of coronavirus data for multiple federal agencies that will have access to the database. The document reads: “As of July 15, 2020, hospitals should no longer report the Covid-19 information in this document to the National Healthcare Safety Network site,” a clearinghouse of data on infectious diseases operated by the CDC since 2008.
The shift in data collection, long the responsibility of the CDC, arose after Dr. Deborah Birx, the chief medical officer on the White House’s coronavirus task force, said in a conference call with hospital executives several weeks ago that healthcare facilities were not adequately reporting their data. CDC employees were shocked at the change, according to The New York Times.
Some public health experts, though, said that the move is the latest in a long line of the Trump administration politicizing the pandemic and the science behind it.
Nicole Lurie, former president Barack Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, told the Times, “Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust. It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like C.D.C. to do its basic job.” Trump disbanded a pandemic response team convened by his predecessor in 2018.
Several days after the letter, CDC Director Robert Redfield offered a grim prognosis for the near future of the United States. In a webinar hosted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, he said, “I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we experienced in American public health.”
His worry, he said, concerns a flu season that will arrive during the worst American health crisis in decades. The flu infects anywhere between 9 and 45 million Americans a year, hospitalizes hundreds of thousands, and kills tens of thousands, according to CDC estimates. Both viruses hitting simultaneously, Redfield said, poses the danger of overwhelming the American health system.
The danger of an overtaxed healthcare system is not theoretical, he said, citing the high mortality rate in New York at the height of its struggle with the pandemic: “When you really look at the differential mortality across the country, it was quite significant—sometimes New York, 5, 6, 7, 8 percent—a lot of that mortality is driven by the stress of the health care system that the patients are in that are trying to be taken care of. So keeping the health care system from being overstretched is going to be really important, and the degree that we’re able to do that will define how well we’re able to get through the fall and winter.”
Redfield also spoke out about an issue that has been especially divisive amid the pandemic: face masks. “Masking is not a political issue; it’s a public health issue, and it really is a personal responsibility for all of us.”
President Donald Trump donned a mask at a public appearance this weekend, one of the first times he has done so after repeatedly foregoing a mask in public settings and ignoring health guidelines.
Despite the raging pandemic, Trump and his administration have taken an adversarial approach to the country’s public health officials, contravening rather than supporting them in many cases. The White House released a list of all the times Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had incorrect predictions about the virus this past weekend and cancelled his cable news appearances, apparently in retaliation for unfavorable assessments of the state of the country’s public health.
Though public health officials, principals, and university presidents have said the resumption of schools this fall will at best become a mixture of online and in-person classes, the commander-in-chief and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have demanded nothing less than full reopening and every student at a desk. Vice President Mike Pence said in a press conference Tuesday, “We don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools.”
Four former directors of the CDC spoke in no uncertain terms in a Tuesday Washington Post op-ed in which they warned, “No president ever politicized its [the CDC’s] science the way Trump has. The administration is undermining public health.”
Coronavirus cases are surging across the country despite the president’s overly optimistic assessment that the sickness will “go away.” The United States hit new highs for daily positive COVID-19 cases multiple times last week, breaking its own record and the world’s on subsequent days. More than 3.4 million people have contracted the disease, and over 130,000 people have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.