New COVID-19 Data From The CDC’s Website Vanishes After White House Seizes Control

Former CDC directors have criticized the move, saying it “undermines public health” and raises concerns over the government’s control of pandemic data.

A nurse seals a specimen bag containing a COVID-19 test swab in California. | Getty Images
A nurse seals a specimen bag containing a COVID-19 test swab in California. | Getty Images

The Trump administration quietly mandated that hospitals report COVID-19 data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services, cutting out the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. The move has alarmed infectious disease experts who say it could “severely weaken the quality and availability of data.”

Hospitals nationwide will now have to report data on COVID-19 patients, availability of beds, ICU beds, number of ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other critical information to a different HHS database. The CDC, the public health institute housed under HHS, has been collecting this data since the virus was first reported in the U.S. 

The new changes took effect Wednesday and sparked criticism from experts and leaders including former CDC directors who say this is another move by an administration that is “undermining public health.” 

Many including journalists and infectious disease experts noticed that hospital data previously available on the CDC’s website was no longer visible on Thursday morning. Later in the day, the backlog of information was back online, but with a note that said new data will not be available past July 14. Instead, the page reroutes users to the HHS requirements.

While many people expressed concern over the White House and its control over pertinent COVID-19 data, the HHS defended the decision, criticizing the CDC’s “inadequate” data collection system.

“The CDC's old data gathering operation once worked well monitoring hospital information across the country, but it's an inadequate system today,” Michael Caputo, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, told reporters in a statement. “The President's Coronavirus Task Force has urged improvements for months, but they just cannot keep up with this pandemic.”

Caputo told CNBC that the HHS will provide accessible data to the public and will be “transparent” about “the information it is collecting on the coronavirus.”

Johns Hopkins University said in a tweet that its own data will not be affected by the shift in the government’s reporting. The university’s dashboard has provided comprehensive COVID-19 case numbers, trends, and deaths since the pandemic began. But the CDC’s website has largely tracked hospitalization data.

As of Thursday, Johns Hopkins reported the U.S. had more than 3.4 million cases, including at least 137,000 deaths.

Experts have pointed out that the public needs easily accessible data for reporting and researching.

“Historically, CDC has been the place where public health data has been sent, and this raises questions about not just access for researchers but access for reporters, access for the public to try to better understand what is happening with the outbreak," Jen Kates, an executive focused on global health at the Kaiser Family Foundation told the New York Times. “Will there be transparency, will there be access, and what is the role of the C.D.C. in understanding the data?”

As of July 14, CDC data illustrated that hospital capacity remained high in certain states. ICU beds in nearly half of U.S. states were at 60% capacity and higher. States including Texas, Alabama, and Arizona were at 70% or more capacity of ICU beds. In Arizona, 25% of the state’s hospital beds had been filled with COVID-19 patients.

COVID-19 cases have continued to climb in parts of the U.S. where cities and states have moved forward with reopening plans. States including Texas, California, Arizona, and Florida have continuously shattered records for numbers of daily new cases.

Earlier this week, the CDC’s Director Dr. Robert Redfield told the Editor-In-Chief of The Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Howard Bauchner, that wearing masks could have a huge impact on containing COVID-19.

“If we can get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think in the next four, six, eight weeks...we can get this epidemic under control,” Redfield said.

His interview came after an article co-written by Redfield was published in JAMA, and laid out data on how facial coverings are effective at containing the spread of the virus.

“When asked to wear face coverings, many people think in terms of personal protection. But face coverings are also widely and routinely used as source control,” the article reads.

Many leaders and communities have been resistant to wearing masks, and the debate has become more politicized as the outbreak has continued and the economy has been hit hard. President Trump himself hadn’t been shown wearing a mask in public up until last weekend.