Current and former members of a committee that advises the Centers for Disease controlled slammed the decision last month to divert the collection of COVID-19 hospital data away from the CDC and to a private company.
The signatories to the scathing letter, which was dated July 31 and published by The New York Times on Wednesday, include past and present members of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC).
“We are extremely concerned about this abrupt change in COVID-19 reporting,” the health experts said. “Retiring NHSN’s COVID-19 surveillance system will have serious consequences on data integrity.”
HICPAC advises the CDC division, known as the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, that maintains a national hospital survey called the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN). The NHSN was the initial destination for hospitals’ COVID-19 data, until last month.
In mid-July, on just a few days’ notice, the administration told hospitals to stop submitting their COVID-19 data to the CDC’s NHSN system and instead submit it to TeleTracking, a private vendor based in Pittsburgh that had received a $10 million contract with the Department of Health and Human Services a few months prior.
The CDC, its director Robert Redfield testified, did not know about the switch until it was made by the director of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar.
The sudden switch led to chaos at the state and local level, with some states losing days’-worth of COVID-19 hospitalization data and the federal government displaying incorrect data for weeks at a time.
A spokesperson for HHS told TPM that the sudden switch was necessary because “we had an urgent need to have specific data in order to allocate the [the anti-viral drug] remdesivir for that week,” but other administration spokespeople have said the CDC wasn’t able to keep up with the administration’s COVID-19 data collection needs more broadly.
The letters’ signatories, the Times noted, included the two co-chairs of HICPAC, who Azar had reappointed to the job.
As a result of the administration’s sudden shift away from the CDC, they wrote, “hospitals are now scrambling to determine how to meet daily reporting requirements to DHHS.”
“Moving forward,” they added, “it will be even more challenging to perform meaningful inter-state comparisons, and to understand which COVID-19 mitigation strategies were successful (or failed).”
Writing that they were “troubled” to divert COVID-19 data away from the experts at the CDC’s DHQP, the letters’ signatories said the United States “cannot lose their decades of expertise in interpreting and analyzing crucial data with the goal of developing interventions that improve the public’s health.”
“We strongly advise that the CDC’s DHQP data experts be allowed to continue their important and trusted work in their mission to save lives and protect Americans from health threats.”