COVID-19, the Politicizing of Science and the CDC
United Church of Christ – Wider Church Ministries
Humanitarian Development Team
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Daily Briefing
Barbara T. Baylor, MPH – Temporary Health Liaison
COVID-19, the Politicizing of Science, and the CDC
For more than 30 years, I have been a proud and dedicated member of one of the largest cohorts of public health professionals in the world – the American Public Health Association. For more than 150 years, this organization with more than 25,000 members has been serving the public in every U.S. state and in countries across the globe to promote and protect the health of people and their communities.
Why am I leading off with this statement? Because I am saddened and angered by the Trump administration’s attacks on public health professionals, especially the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States’ leading national public health agency.
All the more shocking, the current deliberate attempts by the Trump administration to politicize, malign, discredit, denigrate and undermine the CDC and break the public’s trust in this organization come during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the greatest national and global health crises of our time.
When the CDC opened its doors in 1946, its mission was to stop the spread of malaria. Since then, the CDC – which is politically neutral, “blue” nor “red” – has worked 24/7 to protect Americans from health, safety and security threats both in the United States and around the world. Whether diseases start at home or abroad, are chronic or acute, curable or preventable, or due to human error or deliberate attack, CDC fights disease and supports communities and citizens to do the same. Click here for a brief history of the CDC,
A few weeks ago, the Trump administration attacked the global public health infrastructure by withdrawing the United States from the World Health Organization (WHO). Now the Trump administration has ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and send all COVID-19 patient information to a central database in Washington effective July 15, 2020.
From now on, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), not the CDC, 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 COVID-19 pandemic. The move has alarmed health experts who fear the data will be politicized or withheld from the public.
A huge concern to many health experts is the fact that a big contract has been given to a private firm without timely notification to hospitals and without any guidance or training. Dr. Aditya Khanna, a research assistant professor and Director of Network Modeling at the University of Chicago, asks, “What will happen to the data once this private entity gains control of it? Will researchers still be able to access recent, good quality information that they need to update the models?”
Most egregious is the fact that this new database, HHS Protect, is not public, which could affect the work of countless researchers, modelers and health officials who rely on CDC data to make projections and crucial decisions. Anyone wanting to access the CDC data contained within the new system must be “authenticated” by HHS staff and get permission from a CDC representative.
Currently, data is being collected by CDC through the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), the nation’s most widely used healthcare-associated infection (HAI) tracking system.
What does the National Healthcare Safety Network do?
Briefly, it provides facilities, states, regions and the nation with data needed to identify problem areas, measure progress of prevention efforts, and ultimately eliminate healthcare-associated infections. It provides medical facilities, states, regions and the nation with data collection and reporting capabilities needed for infection prevention problems and compliance with state and federal public reporting mandates.
As of July 15, the NHSN was no longer updated with COVID-19 information. If you try to access data now on the CDC website through the National Health Safety Network, you will notice that data dashboards were last updated on July 14. Prior to July 14, the dashboards included data on hospital capacity – occupied inpatient beds, inpatient beds occupied by patients with COVID-19, and occupied intensive care unit (ICU) beds.
In addition to my general alarm at this change, I am concerned that COVID-19 data on racial and ethnic populations could fall through the cracks or not be accurately reflected. It is important that CDC’s efforts in collecting this data remain intact with intentional thought to capture not only cases and deaths by age, gender, race and ethnicity but to also stay the course in collecting other social and environmental conditions that impact how the illness is spread in communities of color.
Public health and other medical providers have spoken out.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, four of the former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, expressed concerns that the Trump administration is politicizing science and undermining its health experts. The data collection shift has reinforced those fears.
The American Public Health Association condemns the political interference in CDC work and has issued this statement: “We have faith in CDC as a paragon of our institutional response to this pandemic. The agency must be listened to as a key voice as we work to overcome COVID-19, which continues to take a tragic toll in America and across the world.”
Ryan Panchadsaram, a data analyst with covidexitstrategy.org, said, “Keeping the data inaccessible is not useful in helping to plan for the pandemic. The CDC data is the only publicly available source of aggregated state-level hospital capacity data in the U.S.”
The American Medical Association (AMA) also objects to this sudden move. President Dr. Susan R. Bailey said in a statement, “We await additional details and information from the Administration on how data collection and sharing will be operationalized, but we urge and expect that the scientists at the CDC will continue to have timely, comprehensive access to data.”
The National Governors Association (NGA) also took issue with the change in reporting requirements. It issued a statement on behalf of governors in all 55 states and territories requesting a 30-day delay so that hospitals can learn the new system. The NGA also urged the administration to make the data publicly available.