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EDITORIAL: With data switch, Trump delivers another slap to CDC

York Dispatch Editorial Board

Forgive us if we take it with an entire shaker of salt when the Trump administration says it's making a change to improve a government agency's efficiency.

And up that to a pound of salt when it's an agency that has fallen out of favor with our mercurial president.

As of Thursday morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is no longer tracking data from U.S. hospitals on such matters as bed occupancy, staffing levels, the status of COVID-19 patients, available ventilators, supplies of personal protective equipment and more. 

Instead, hospitals have been instructed to report that data to Health and Human Services through TeleTracking, a private company based in Pittsburgh, or through their state health departments if they receive a written waiver.

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Huh. So in the midst of a pandemic that has killed nearly 138,000 Americans and is surging through some states, when hospitals are running out of space in intensive care units and medical workers are rationing their masks and gowns, the agency that has always kept tabs on those numbers ... isn't going to be doing that any more.

The administration says the idea is to "streamline reporting," CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield said during a call with reporters, according to The Associated Press. According to HHS, only 85% of hospitals were sending in the data, and it was taking a week or more. A CDC official, speaking anonymously, said that only 60% of hospitals were participating, but the data was being reported out within two days.

The change will mean faster and more complete reporting, HHS said. Although, since there are no incentives or mandates to go along with the change, it's hard to see why that would change.

Well, no official incentives, anyway. The American Hospital Association told its members on Monday that shipments of the COVID-19 treatment remdesivir will be based solely on the data from the TeleTracking system, according to NPR.

President Donald Trump, center, points as he prepares to answer question after speaking about the coronavirus in the press briefing room at the White House, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Washington, as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, Vice President Mike Pence, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams listen. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

And that's the kind of thing that gives us pause. TeleTracking was awarded a $10.2 million contract in April to gather this data, which was already being gathered by the CDC. The company has had 29 government contracts since 2004, mostly for computer systems and programming for Veterans Affairs hospitals. None of the contracts was for more than $300,000.

The CDC, on the other hand, has been collecting this sort of data for decades and has developed relationships with hospitals and with the agencies, vendors and others who need this data.

One complaint is that the CDC's equipment is old and slow. Whose fault is that? The agency tasked with tracking public health for the country should have the equipment it needs to do its job. 

And now there are others, from agencies to vendors, who do not have access to the daily data because it is no longer in the CDC's hands. The CDC's Current Hospital Capacity Estimates website says it was updated on Tuesday and will not be updated again.

Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense expert at George Mason University, said the change appears to be consistent with administration moves in recent months that have sidelined the CDC from the role it has played in other epidemics as the public's primary source of information.

“We know the administration has been trying to silence the CDC," he said. “Now it looks like the administration might be trying to blind the CDC as well.”

This seems like a strategy firmly in the Trump mode, both taking data away from an agency that is out of his favor and privatizing work that has always been done by a government agency.

Even if the change does serve the stated purpose of streamlining the information collection, it gives the impression that Trump is trying to withhold crucial information in the midst of a pandemic and the administration is yet again putting its own agenda ahead of the needs of the country.