Little-Known Company Taking Over COVID Data From CDC Might Fall Short, Experts Fear

CDC, COVID-19, coronavirus
TPM Illustration/Getty Images/cdc.gov
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July 21, 2020 12:04 p.m.
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Due to a Trump administration order earlier this month, thousands of hospitals will now bypass the CDC and instead funnel their COVID-19-related data to a Pittsburgh-based private technology firm that some experts say could be ill-equipped for the task.

TeleTracking, which specializes in helping hospitals manage patient flow, had never before scored as large a government contract as it did this April when it clinched the $10.2 million deal to become a repository for hospitals’ COVID-19 data, according to government records. Now that the administration has elbowed aside the CDC’s infection tracking system, the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), TeleTracking is being launched from the land of four- and five-figure government contracts to the front lines of tracking the pandemic.

TeleTracking: ‘Unknown,’ ‘Risky,’ ‘Not The Gold Standard’ 

That has some experts concerned. The company’s track record just doesn’t compare to the CDC’s, said Karen Hoffmann, former president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). 

“The biggest issue with this new data system is, they are not the gold standard with data,” she told TPM. “They have no history with infection preventionists, where the CDC is really considered the gold standard to be able to track and use their expertise and their technical support for collecting data.” 

“And for infection preventionists and epidemiologists that have a longstanding relationship with the CDC — decades to build — we don’t have that with TeleTracking,” she added. “We don’t know who’s on the other end, who can assist us, and if they have any personnel that have any epidemiologic knowledge to know what to do with that data.”

The CDC’s NHSN was launched 15 years ago and has become known for its tracking and public recording of hospital infections. It has been collecting information on the COVID-19 outbreak since March. 

“Making this kind of change, in the middle of a pandemic, can be nothing but disruptive,” APIC director of regulatory affairs Nancy Hailpern told TPM. “TeleTracking is completely unknown. I don’t know of any of our members that use it because I’ve never heard of it before.” 

In a written statement to TPM, TeleTracking highlighted its 30 years of experience managing and tracking “hundreds of thousands” of hospital beds and managing “the movement of million patients across the care continuum.”

“TeleTracking has been focused on this and only this for three decades, has invested over $1 billion in research and development, and was the tech company that not only launched the concept of patient flow and taught hospitals how to manage bed and room capacity, and was also the first to recognize and pioneer the health system command center model where critical—once disparate—functions centralize in order to make better, faster decisions about patient access and care,” spokesperson Amie Podolak wrote.

TeleTracking did not respond to specific questions about the company’s capacity to handle the COVID-19 data, and did not make anyone available for an interview.    

Administration Talks Up A ‘Streamlined’ CDC Alternative

The administration has been touting the TeleTracking system as a more efficient alternative to the NHSN, which they claim has been too slow to report hospitals’ data. CDC Director Robert Redfield used words like “rapid,” “streamlined” and “flexible” to describe TeleTracking’s system on a recent press call. 

“With TeleTracking, HHS is able to create new data fields and collect data from the more than 6,000 hospitals in the country in only 1-3 days,” HHS said in an emailed FAQ Monday. The same process took NHSN “weeks,” the email claimed.

HHS did not offer further specifics about how the company so significantly outpaced the CDC.

“This decision took some by surprise and raises a lot of questions going forward about how this private company is going to achieve that additional speed,” Jen Kates, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, told TPM. 

“I think it’s important to understand what it takes to collect and interpret this data. It’s not counting noses,” added Liora Alschuler, CEO of Lanata Consulting Group, which has worked with NHSN in the past. “There are sound reasons why over 3,000 hospitals, about half those in the U.S., chose to report to NHSN.”

There’s also the size of the company. TeleTracking has about 1,000 hospitals in its client base. According to Dun and Bradstreet, it has 300 employees across all of its locations and generates $58.16 million in annual revenue. 

“Such a company would generally be considered risky if not high risk” for the contract, said Peter Vinella, a former CIO of Capital Markets at Smith Barney who has overseen large data migration projects as a financial consultant.

The Pittsburgh Business Times reported Monday that TeleTracking had recently hired a few dozen new employees, in part to work on the HHS contract, and that the company had created a government services entity separate from its normal work for hospitals and health systems.

“Coming into this we had very long discussions. This is something we need to do, we believe we can help, but it cannot be, it cannot be, at the cost of losing focus on our customers,” Teletracking President Chris Johnson told the Business Times, referring to the HHS contract. 

“In order to do that we had to organize our business appropriately … to make sure we were dividing our client commitments from our federal commitments,” he added. “And we did that well. … We’ve been able to deliver on both fronts without slipping on either one.”

In a written statement to TPM, TeleTracking’s Podolak said that the company “is uniquely qualified and was awarded the April 2020 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] to collect data on available hospital beds, hospital capacity, COVID-19 patients, patients in need of ventilation, etc.”

Changing Horses Mid-Stream — Or Mid-Pandemic

Alongside the possible shortcomings of TeleTracking as the NHSN’s replacement is the concern that thousands of hospitals are going to have to switch to the new system while in the throes of fighting a pandemic. 

Last week, the U.S. experienced a record-setting day of new COVID-19 cases with 75,000 infections recorded. Some states, particularly in the South and West, have re-shut down businesses and public spaces in the face of alarming spikes. 

“Hospitals right now are stretched very thin,” Hoffmann, the former president of APIC, told TPM. “Some are stretched to the max with no end in sight. And then, out of nowhere they have to do, overnight, a whole new system for reporting — which is really going to add significant burden, in most of our opinions, to already overwhelmed health care personnel and the health care system.” 

And the transition has happened quickly. HHS abruptly announced that the NHSN would no longer be an option as of July 15 in an initially little-noticed document posted on its website dated July 10. Before then, hospitals could use the NHSN, TeleTracking or their state health departments to submit data. They can still use the state health departments if they obtain a written release.

Though there’s always some “tension” and “pain” inherent in such a transition, HHS CIO Jose Arrieta told reporters on a Monday press call, HHS has set up a network of help desks to smooth over the change. A senior HHS official said that since the actual data the hospitals are entering is the same as when the CDC was in charge, the process of submitting it should not be significantly different.

Vinella, the former Wall Street CIO, said that such huge data tracking and repository systems usually take months, if not years, to set up, calling it an “impossible” feat for hospitals to adjust to the change so quickly.  

“At best, data will be lost or corrupted and hospitals will be unnecessarily burdened in the short run,” he said.

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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