Lawmakers and public health experts are demanding that the Trump administration answer for its abrupt decision this week to cut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of the coronavirus data-collection process, a move critics warned could impede state efforts to combat the pandemic and leave crucial information open to politically motivated spin.
"The Trump administration is going to have to give a full justification for this, because until they do, it's hard to see how this step won't further sideline public health experts and obscure the severity of this crisis," said Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
"The Trump administration has shown that they're willing to lie to the American people about this pandemic for political gain. Allowing them to have control of this important data is potentially dangerous."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
"CDC has had a system in place for over a decade to track infection data and hospitals and states know and trust this system," Murray added. "So it's entirely unclear why the Trump administration has asked states and hospitals to upend their reporting systems in the middle of a pandemic—in 48 hours nonetheless—without a single explanation as to why this new system is better or necessary."
The White House directive—which took effect Wednesday as coronavirus cases surge across the U.S.—instructed hospitals to bypass the CDC and instead send information about Covid-19 patients, bed capacity, and medical supplies to a Health and Human Services Department (HHS) database run by TeleTracking Technologies, a private firm that was quietly awarded a $10.2 million federal contract in April.
Democratic lawmakers have raised questions about the details of the TeleTracking contract, which remain shrouded in secrecy. In a tweet late Wednesday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) called the Trump administration's decision to divert Covid-19 data to a system run by a private contractor "a shameful attempt to hide its incompetence."
"The Trump administration is rerouting important Covid-19 data, like racial disparities, from the CDC's public database to a private portal operated by political appointees," said Pressley. "The more he politicizes this pandemic, the more lives we risk."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) warned that given the White House's willingness to "lie to the American people about this pandemic for political gain," giving HHS control over Covid-19 data "is potentially dangerous for America and horrible for transparency."
The Trump administration has shown that they're willing to lie to the American people about this pandemic for political gain. Allowing them to have control of this important data is potentially dangerous for America and horrible for transparency. https://t.co/h8FJp9myxE
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) July 15, 2020
Trump administration officials insist the directive will streamline the Covid-19 data-gathering process without hindering transparency, but health officials are worried the order will deprive experts of information the CDC previously made available to the public and cause chaos as hospitals scramble to adjust to the new reporting system.
Bruce Meyer, president of Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, told the Washington Post that the longstanding CDC data-collection system was "highly reliable and efficient."
"Sidestepping these established tracking systems creates deep concerns that we will be unable to obtain appropriate and reliable information to perform research and manage our response to the virus," said Meyer.
In a statement late Tuesday, Thomas File Jr., president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, warned that "placing medical data collection outside of the leadership of public health experts could severely weaken the quality and availability of data, add an additional burden to already overwhelmed hospitals, and add a new challenge to the U.S. pandemic response."
"At this critical time when many states are experiencing surges, reliable, comprehensive data are essential to inform the distribution of supplies and treatment," said File. "We urge the administration to follow public health expertise in addressing this public health crisis."