Hospitals have been ordered to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and send all patient information to a central database in Washington, raising questions about transparency.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and send all Covid-19 patient information to a central database in Washington beginning on Wednesday. The move has alarmed health experts who fear the data will be politicized or withheld from the public.
The new instructions were posted recently in a little-noticed document on the Department of Health and Human Services website. From now on, the department — not the C.D.C. — will collect daily 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 like personal protective gear and remdesivir, the first drug shown to be effective against the virus. But the Health and Human Services database that will receive new information is not open to the public, which could affect the work of scores of researchers, modelers and health officials who rely on C.D.C. data to make projections and crucial decisions.
“Historically, C.D.C. 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,” said Jen Kates, the director of global health and H.I.V. policy with the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
“How will the data be protected?” she asked. “Will there be transparency, will there be access, and what is the role of the C.D.C. in understanding the data?”
News of the change came as a shock at the C.D.C., according to two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. Michael R. Caputo, a Health and Human Services spokesman, called the C.D.C.’s system inadequate and said the two systems would be linked. The C.D.C. would continue to make data public, he said.
“Today, the C.D.C. still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data,” Mr. Caputo said. “America requires it in real time. The new, faster and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus, and the C.D.C., an operating division of H.H.S., will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response. They will simply no longer control it.”
But the instructions to hospitals in the department guidance are explicit and underscored: “As of July 15, 2020, hospitals should no longer report the Covid-19 information in this document to the National Healthcare Safety Network site,” the C.D.C.’s system for gathering data from more than 25,000 medical centers around the country.
Public health experts have long expressed concerns that the Trump administration is politicizing science and undermining its health experts, in particular the C.D.C.; four of the agency’s former directors, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, said as much in an opinion piece published Tuesday in The Washington Post. The data collection shift reinforced those fears.