CDC’s failure to resist political takeover

This past week, two outlets published major investigations of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The first story, by Science’s Charles Piller, focuses on White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and her role in the hospitalization data switch from the CDC to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The second story, by ProPublica’s James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella, and Kristen Berg, provides a broader view of internal CDC dynamics and challenges since the start of the pandemic.

These stories do not focus on data specifically, but I wanted to foreground them this week as crucial insights into how the work of science and public health experts is endangered when powerful leaders prioritize their own narratives. Both stories describe how Dr. Birx disrespected and overrode CDC experts. She wanted data from every hospital in the country, every day, and failed to understand why the CDC could not deliver. The ProPublica story quotes an anonymous CDC scientist:

Birx expected “every hospital to report every piece of data every day, which is in complete defiance of statistics,” a CDC data scientist said. “We have 60% [of hospitals] reporting, which was certainly good enough for us to have reliable estimates. If we got to 80%, even better. A hundred percent is unnecessary, unrealistic, but that’s part of Birx’s dogma.”

As I explained in this newsletter’s very first issue, in July, the CDC’s hospital data reporting system was undercut in favor of a new system, built by the software company TeleTracking and managed by the HHS. Hospitals were told to stop reporting to the CDC’s system and start using TeleTracking instead. The two features published this week tie that data switch inexorably to Dr. Birx’s frustration with the CDC and her demand for more frequent data at any cost.

Public health experts across the country worried that already-overworked hospital staff would face significant challenges in switching to a new data system, from navigating bureaucracy to, in some cases, manually entering numbers into a form with 91 categories. Initial data reported by the new HHS system in July were fraught with errors—such as a report of 118% hospital beds occupied in Rhode Island—and inconsistencies when compared to the hospital data reported out by state public health departments. I co-wrote an analysis of these issues for the COVID Tracking Project.

But at least, I thought at the time, the HHS system was getting more complete data. The HHS system quickly increased the number of hospitals reporting to the federal government by about 1,500, and by October 6, Dr. Birx bragged at a press briefing that 98% of hospitals were reporting at least weekly. As Piller’s story in Science describes, however, such claims fail to mention that the bar for a hospital to be included in that 98% is very low:

At a 6 October press briefing, Birx said 98% of hospitals were reporting at least weekly and 86% daily. In its reply to Science, HHS pegged the daily number at 95%. To achieve that, the bar for “compliance” was set very low, as a single data item during the prior week. A 23 September CDC report, obtained by Science, shows that as of that date only about 24% of hospitals reported all requested data, including protective equipment supplies in hand. In five states or territories, not a single hospital provided complete data.

Piller goes on to describe how HHS’s TeleTracking data system allows errors—such as typos entered by overworked hospital staff—to “flow into [the] system” and then (theoretically) be fixed later. This method further makes HHS’s data untrustworthy for the public health researchers using it to track the pandemic. The agency is working on improvements, certainly, and public callouts of the hospital capacity numbers have slowed since TeleTracking’s rollout in July. Still, the initial political media storm created by this hospitalization data switch, combined with the details about the switch revealed by these two new features, has led me to be much warier of future data releases by both the HHS and the CDC than I was before 2020.

Just as the White House boasted, “Our staffers get tested every day,” in response to critiques of President Trump’s flaunting of public health measures, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force wanted to boast, “We collect data every day,” in response to critiques of the country’s overburdened healthcare system. But testing and collecting data should both be only small parts of the national response to COVID-19. When scientists see their expertise ignored in favor of recommendations that will fit a chosen political narrative, public trust is lost in the very institutions they represent. And rebuilding that trust will take a long time.

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