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On coronavirus data, Team Trump decides to circumvent the CDC

As one expert put it, “I see little benefit from separating reporting of hospitalizations from reporting of cases, which CDC currently coordinates.”
Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce first Ebola case diagnosed in the USA.
epa04425449 The entrance to the main campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 30 September 2014.JOHN AMIS / EPA

Four former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- spanning Republican and Democratic administrations -- did something unusual yesterday. Tom Frieden, Jeffrey Koplan, David Satcher, and Richard Besser got together and co-authored a Washington Post op-ed decrying the politicization of science in the Trump administration.

Their complaints are understandable. Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined or contradicted CDC guidance during the coronavirus crisis. Team Trump has also applied political pressure on the CDC, both publicly and privately. This week, the president went so far as to amplify a missive from a former gameshow host, who accused CDC scientists, among others, of lying to the public for political reasons.

But it's one thing when the White House undermines public confidence in the CDC; it's something else when Team Trump denies the CDC coronavirus data from hospitals.

The New York Times reported earlier Tuesday that the administration had ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and send all COVID-19 patient information to a central database in Washington beginning Wednesday, raising concerns from health experts that it will be politicized or withheld from the public.

Andrea Mitchell, raising a concern shared by many, noted on Twitter, "This is a way to break the CDC by denying it essential data."

Michael Caputo, a leading voice for Trump's Department of Health and Human Services, told NBC News that the move was made to create a more efficient system.

Of course, Caputo is a notorious Republican political operative and a Roger Stone protégé -- with no meaningful background in health care or medical data management -- so it's difficult to accept his assurances at face value.

A Washington Post report added:

Under the reporting system that is ending, about 3,000 hospitals -- or the health systems that own them -- send detailed information about covid-19 patients and other metrics to the CDC’s long-standing hospital network, the National Healthcare Safety Network, or NHSN. CDC staff analyze the data and provide tailored reports to every state twice a week and multiple federal agencies every day, according to a federal health official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. These data are used by local health officials and policymakers to identify coronavirus trends in hospitals in their communities, the official said.

The article added that public health experts are concerned that bypassing the CDC "could harm the quality of data and the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic," and could "further marginalize the CDC" at exactly the wrong time.

“I worry greatly about cutting CDC out of these reporting efforts,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security. “I see little benefit from separating reporting of hospitalizations from reporting of cases, which CDC currently coordinates.”

What could possibly go wrong? It's not like the Trump administration has given the public any reason to be concerned with the quality of its response to the pandemic, right?