Boston-based medical and public health experts are expressing concern about the Trump administration’s plan to strip control of hospital coronavirus data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The CDC has more experience handling data of this kind, more experience interpreting it, and more experience, frankly, as an agency of public health,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The Trump administration should be working with CDC, supporting the CDC, and taking the CDC’s advice, rather than anything other than that,” he said.
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia said in a tweet that the move was a “travesty.” Addressing CDC Director Robert Redfield, she said, I “beseech you, one outbreak responder to another, to speak up. How can we have an effective response without access to data?”
“At this moment of time, it is no longer about politics or about any of our bodies of work before this: it is about saving American lives,” said Bhadelia, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center.
“Why create an expensive parallel system that requires hospitals to relearn an entirely new process?” she said.
The Trump administration has ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and send all coronavirus patient information to a central database in Washington, raising concerns that the data will be politicized or withheld from the public.
From now on, the Department of Health and Human Services — not the CDC — will collect reports about the patients that each hospital is treating, the number of available beds and ventilators, and other information vital to tracking the pandemic.
Officials say the change will streamline data gathering and assist the White House coronavirus task force in allocating scarce supplies. But the database that will receive new information is not open to the public, which could affect the work of researchers and health officials who rely on CDC data to make projections and crucial decisions, The New York Times reported.
“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,” Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS told NBC News Tuesday night. “They will simply no longer control it.”
Hanage said that to researchers the data is “incredibly important. It’s everything. Without data that we can be confident in, we will be flying blind.”
“Adding another layer to that and taking it away from the public health agency which has the most experience in handling it — and up until recently had a very, very well-trusted profile among public health professionals — is a retrograde step,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
Dr. David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the administration’s move would be good if it accelerated data gathering and helped in the allocation of supplies, noting that the Times reported that White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, whom he called a “respected scientist and nonpolitical person,” was involved.
But he emphasized that the information collected must still be made available to researchers and the CDC.
“It’s extremely important,” he said, that the CDC have access to the data. “The CDC has been the agency that is tasked and has the expertise and background to analyze these sorts of data. And some of its systems for capturing data are relatively old, so it’s possible that there are faster ways of doing it. But the CDC needs to be on point in analyzing the data, having access to it, and using it to guide their recommendations and guidance as we go forward.”
The Massachusetts Hospital Association said the state’s hospitals would continue to work with the state to provide “all requested COVID-19 data to federal and state officials. Data plays an instrumental role in our ongoing response to this crisis, both here in the commonwealth and across the nation.”
“Considering the new and significant administrative burden posed by the U.S. Health and Human Services requirements, we hope to learn more about how this data will be used and shared,” the association said in a statement.
Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, who participated in meetings of a group of government and hospital officials who designed the plan, said in a statement, ““Teaching hospitals support efforts to streamline and improve data reporting.”
“The administration has pledged to retain data transparency and give hospitals and public health agencies access to the data. As long as the data is made public and the administration continues to interact with health experts and stakeholders to improve our response to the pandemic, we support the new process,” she said.
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
Martin finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.