HHS unveils new coronavirus hospitalization database, says it’s more complete than CDC’s

Health, Fitness & Food

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks after a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Health and Human Services on June 26, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Joshua Roberts | Getty Images

The Trump administration on Monday unveiled a new website of Covid-19 hospitalization data that officials said offers a more complete picture of the outbreak than the data previously compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The administration instructed hospitals last week to stop reporting to the CDC’s long-standing National Healthcare Safety Network, which provides officials “with data needed to identify problem areas, measure progress of prevention efforts, and ultimately eliminate healthcare-associated infections.” Instead, hospitals were instructed to report such data through a new portal with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Officials said the decision was made to streamline data reporting and to provide HHS officials with real-time data used to make decisions such as how to distribute the country’s scarce supply of Covid-19 treatment remdesivir. Former health officials who spoke with CNBC said the CDC’s system needed to be overhauled, but acknowledged that shifting control away from the agency in the midst of a public health crisis raises some red flags.

Jose Arrieta, HHS’ chief information officer, said Monday on a conference call with reporters that the CDC’s reporting system only collected data from about 3,000 of the country’s roughly 6,200 hospitals. HHS’ new system collects data from about 4,500 hospitals most days, he added.

“We’re showing you a data set that is more robust and has more coverage than anything we have published, historically, before,” he said. “Data is the single most important thing in being able to respond and we want to create a national discussion around the importance of data sharing in responding to a pandemic like Covid-19.”

Arrieta added that the publicly available HHS portal uses the same “predictive models” that had been used by the CDC to analyze the raw data collected. He said the raw data itself will also be available for hospitals to download and incorporate into their own dashboards and analyses if they wish to do so. He said at least some of the raw data will be available to the public, including third-party researchers, too.

“We think that this level of transparency will not only help to create and develop some of the scientific minds of the future, but it creates the maximum transparency for American citizens if they want to go in and look at the data themselves,” he said.

To access some data sets such as those provided by the CDC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or by private companies, people will need to undergo an authentication process, so that HHS knows who’s accessing the data, Arrieta said. He added that the agency will roll out a “time-series” feature over the next couple of weeks, so that users can see what HHS did with the data it collected.

When the administration announced the plan last week to shift control of the hospital data from the CDC to HHS, it prompted outcry from governors, some politicians and former CDC officials who expressed concern that the move would place a bureaucratic burden on hospitals and sideline the CDC. Officials stressed that the CDC would remain involved in the U.S. response efforts and would retain access to the data.

However, some data portals quietly disappeared from the CDC’s website after the policy went into effect and were only restored with outdated information after CNBC and others reported the move. Later last week, the National Governors Association called for the policy change to be delayed so states and officials would have time to prepare for the transition to the new portal. Other politicians called for the policy change to be outright reversed.

“We realize this is a change and anytime there is a change it obviously creates a little bit of tension,” Arrieta said Monday, “maybe a little bit of pain to transition.”

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