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Biden must bring data back to the CDC

With more than 100,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital, cases still rising in most states, and healthcare workers overwhelmed, the United States is once again facing a crisis.

President-elect Joe Biden (File photograph by Matt Rourke/AP)

In the weeks ahead, before vaccines can be widely distributed, health officials must manage their resources — medicines, beds, protective equipment and, above all, staff — prudently to keep up with the surge.

Sadly, this is made harder by the Federal Government's failed process for collecting hospital data — something that President-elect Joe Biden will need to urgently address.

For years, the job of collecting, analysing and publicising such data — including numbers of patients, staffers, and available beds and supplies — was handled by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Last summer, for reasons that remain murky, the Trump Administration abruptly countermanded this arrangement and required that hospitals send the data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services. It was a reckless and disruptive intrusion that was bound to cause chaos and impede efforts to track the pandemic and allocate resources.

And so it did. The new system suffered delays, the data it collected was inconsistent, and loads of information that the CDC had once made public were suddenly hidden from view. Things got so bad so fast that, a little more than a month after the change was made, Deborah Birx, the White House's Covid-19 co-ordinator, said HHS would reverse course.

Unfortunately, that never happened. And a recent investigation by Science revealed that the disarray and confusion have persisted. The numbers of Covid patients in hospital compiled by the HHS Protect database differ from state figures by more than 20 per cent in most cases. Sometimes the state tallies are higher, and sometimes lower. In 21 states, the reporter found, "HHS Protect data fluctuated erratically".

What's more, the publicly accessible data are incomplete, and don't reveal information such as the size of local stockpiles of protective equipment — information that's critical for hospitals trying to manage the pandemic surge.

Fixing this mess will fall to Rochelle Walensky, whom Biden has named to become head of a now crippled and demoralised CDC. She doesn't need Senate confirmation and so can get to work immediately on January. 20. She should return the CDC as quickly as possible to its effective traditions: holding regular public briefings; keeping Americans apprised of the course of the virus and best practices to keep themselves safe; and gathering and publicising data on the pandemic.

That means returning hospital data collection to a permanent home at the CDC where seasoned epidemiologists can analyse it. This shouldn't be done abruptly; the Trump Administration demonstrated last summer how disruptive such a shift can be for hospitals under stress. But Walensky should make clear that a transition back to the CDC will start within months.

It is lamentable that America needs to wait another five weeks for the CDC to once again start living up to its reputation as the world's most capable and respected public-health agency. But few things are more important for getting the pandemic under control.

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Published December 19, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 18, 2020 at 4:17 pm)

Biden must bring data back to the CDC

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