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Birx Stokes Hopes That Key Hospital Data Tracking Will Soon Return To CDC

Dr. Deborah Birx speaks to reporters this week outside the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in Little Rock. Birx indicated that data on U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations will move back to the CDC under a "revolutionary new data system" the agency is developing.
Dr. Deborah Birx speaks to reporters this week outside the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in Little Rock. Birx indicated that data on U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations will move back to the CDC under a "revolutionary new data system" the agency is developing.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working "to build a revolutionary new data system" for COVID-19 hospital data collection that the CDC will run upon completion, according to Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Birx's comments this week come a month after the Trump administration mandated that hospitals sidestep the agency and send critical information about COVID-19 hospitalizations and equipment to a different federal database managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC.

The July decision was met with an avalanche of criticism from medical institutions and public health groups. Weeks after the new reporting system was rolled out, the data were shown to be rife with inconsistencies and updated erratically.

The announcement sparked hope among some public health advocates that the current, controversial system of reporting hospital data around COVID-19 would soon be canceled and that data collection would be restored to the CDC.

Birx made the remarks Monday during a visit to the Arkansas Governor's Mansion, but she did not provide a time frame for the change.

Having the CDC run data collection again "would help us tremendously in getting back on track with respect to reporting and understanding what's happening with this pandemic across the region, the state and the nation," said Dr. Vineet Chopra, chief of the division of hospital medicine at the University of Michigan and a member of a federal advisory committee on hospital infection prevention.

Last month, the White House told hospitals to stop reporting critical data into a CDC system they had used since the beginning of the pandemic, which was analyzing the data and posting thrice-weekly updates on a CDC website. Instead, hospitals have had to start reporting information on how many intensive care beds were available, for example, and how much personal protective equipment was in stock to a newer system built by a private contractor, TeleTracking, or directly to their state health departments. Both tracks bypass the CDC and provide the data directly to HHS.

When infection numbers start to rise in a state, public health officials and residents worry about whether there are enough hospital beds for seriously ill patients. An area's hospital capacity is an estimate, fed by the data that individual hospitals report. Public health officials rely on the estimates to see whether hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed.

Hospitals were given a few days' notice to adopt the reporting change. They were told that compliance with the new reporting tools would determine their access to the federal supply of remdesivir, one of the few drugs proven to work against COVID-19.

"Many hospitals, ours included, have struggled to use the new system," Chopra said, "and also to understand how best to extract data from it and use it to understand capacity, use rates [for protective equipment], and the prevalence of infection."

HHS officials insisted the new system would be quicker and provide more complete data. But an NPR analysis showed that weeks after the data collecting change, information posted to the public HHS site was spotty, incomplete and riddled with errors.

Birx said Monday the information collected through the HHS reporting system is proving useful. "For the first time every day, I can see every new admission across the country, and that has been extraordinarily important," she said.

Still, she described the reporting system as "interim." When the final system is ready, she said, that "[the data reporting function] can be moved back to the CDC, and they can have that regular accountability with hospitals relevant to treatment and PPE."

HHS said Birx's comments do not constitute a shift in policy. "The process for COVID-19 data reporting has not and is not changing," said a statement from Michael Caputo, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, in an email to NPR.

Last month's abrupt change in data collection caused ruptures to the validity and accuracy of the data during a critical time in the pandemic, said Lisa M. Lee, former chief science officer for public health surveillance at the CDC and now an associate vice president at Virginia Tech.

If the CDC were put back in charge of the data "for the long haul, we would have a much better system," she said, "[because] we have professional surveillance scientists at CDC and public health professionals who have the expertise to handle data that are this complex."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.