NOEL KING, HOST:
Up until now, hospitals have been collecting data about COVID-19, like the number of cases, and sending it to the CDC so health officials can make decisions based on that data. But the Trump administration has told hospitals to stop sending it to the CDC and send it to a different database at the Department of Health and Human Services. The change went into effect yesterday. NPR's Pien Huang has been following this story. Good morning, Pien.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So what had hospitals been doing exactly? And what is the change?
HUANG: OK. Well, since the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals have been reporting directly to the CDC things like how many COVID patients they have and how many beds are available and whether they have enough masks and gloves and ventilators. And suddenly this week, many hospitals got an email from the American Hospital Association, which said don't report this information to the CDC anymore. Instead, it should go into a new system set up by a private company that routes this data directly to HHS. Or as a second option, hospitals can send the information directly to state health departments. But either way, CDC will no longer get this data directly. And a lot of people aren't very happy about that. So we spoke with Dr. Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association, who has worked in a lot of health emergencies.
GEORGES BENJAMIN: One thing that I've learned is never, ever, ever change processes in the middle of a disaster. It does not go well when you do that. No one knows what to do. And it basically confuses your response.
HUANG: Especially since it's a whole new system for many hospitals, and they were only given a day or two to make the change.
KING: In the middle of a literal pandemic, why would the Trump administration want to make this change with such haste?
HUANG: Well, HHS issued a statement saying that the CDC's reporting system was slow. And CDC Director Robert Redfield said there's a need to modernize their data collection systems. But the timing for the move is unclear. And recently, the Trump White House has been openly critical of the advice they're getting from federal scientists. So some researchers, like epidemiologist Saskia Popescu from University of Arizona, says it looks like it could be part of a pattern.
SASKIA POPESCU: It's really hard not to see this as some kind of interference or, like, snub at the CDC. It's hard not to see it that way. And I think with so many concerns over politicization of data right now, this is concerning.
HUANG: And she says that the timing for the change is awful because many hospitals are struggling to handle their COVID cases.
KING: You talked to someone inside the CDC?
HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. I spoke with Dr. Daniel Pollock. He's been with the CDC for 36 years. And his title is surveillance branch chief for the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. That's the group that was in charge of getting and analyzing all that hospital data. Pollock says that their data collection system wasn't slow. It was processing data as quickly as any of the other reporting methods. And he also says that the CDC has longstanding relationships with the hospitals that go back for decades. And they have a lot of experience analyzing that data. So he's not sure that the new system will be able to replicate what the CDC does.
DANIEL POLLOCK: They've been stood up relatively recently. And they don't have the track record and the expertise that we're able to provide.
HUANG: And one other big concern that others in the public health community have been raising is whether this data will be publicly available. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha. He's a global health professor at Harvard.
ASHISH JHA: We absolutely need to see a commitment from the administration for transparency and making sure that that data and information is public and verifiable.
HUANG: The administration says it'll be posting the data on an HHS platform that CDC will still have access to. And the data reporting change just went into effect yesterday.
KING: It was a private company that set up the new database. It wasn't a federal agency. What do you know about that company?
HUANG: Yeah, so the company is called TeleTracking. It's based in Pennsylvania. And it was awarded a $10 million contract back in April. Senator Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington, has pointed out that it was a non-competitive contract, which means that no other companies got to vie for it, so she's been asking why. She also says that it collects the same information and has the same capabilities as the CDC system, so she's been asking why it was needed.
KING: NPR's Pien Huang. Pien, thanks so much.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
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