No, hospitalization data isn’t switching back to the CDC

I mean, it is. But not right now. Or is it?

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined, “Troubled COVID-19 Data System Returning to CDC.” At first glance, the article reports that the tracking of COVID-19 hospitalization data is returning to the CDC’s charge after numerous concerns were raised about data accuracy and integrity under Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) control.

Readers, I cannot lie: when I first saw this headline, I lay down on the floor of my apartment and cursed for several minutes. Why would they change it back, I thought. The HHS is already collecting data from more hospitals than the CDC did. It made sense with remdisivir distribution. Why make everyone go through another system switch.

And then I got up, sent some incredulous messages in the COVID Tracking Project Slack server, and actually read the full article. What is actually happening, according to WSJ reporter Robbie Whelam, is this: the CDC is developing a new data system which will be more efficient for both hospitals and data users. After the new system is complete, the CDC will once again collect and report hospitalization data.

“CDC is working with us right now to build a revolutionary new data system so it can be moved back to the CDC, and they can have that regular accountability with hospitals relevant to treatment and PPE,” Dr. Birx said, referring to personal protective equipment used by doctors and nurses.

The article, however, fails to report any meaningful details about this new CDC data system. What is the proposed timeline for the system? What makes it “revolutionary?” Who is developing it? What new metrics will it collect? How will it address challenges that hospitals with fewer staff or lower technological capacity currently face in making daily reports? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Also, there’s this insight, from POLITICO reporter Dan Diamond:

Within a few hours, the WSJ had changed their headline to “COVID-19 Data Will Once Again Be Collected by CDC, in Policy Reversal.”

It continues to be unclear when or how the HHS-back-to-CDC hospitalization data switch will occur, if it does occur. As COVID-19 Tracking Project lead Erin Kissane points out, federal IT development happens very slowly. It will likely be months before definitive information is available on the CDC’s new database.

Meanwhile, the HHS is proceeding with its own new data system effort: an overhaul called the Modernizing Public Health Reporting and Surveillance projectPOLITICO reported this past Wednesday. The project plans to improve data technology and data quality at state and local public health departments over the next several years. It’s an ambitious initiative, considering that HHS is still working on fixing its hospital reporting:

HHS says that 85 percent of the nation’s hospitals report daily — a mark that is improving, and that includes more metrics the government uses to allocate scarce resources during the pandemic, like the drug remdesivir. But federal officials say they receive only half of the required clinical information on average, a gap that could distort the scope of the pandemic and obscure who’s getting sick where.

I may be optimistic, but I’m hoping that at least one of these new data systems will be ready to go before the next pandemic hits.

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