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Earlier this year, the federal government fundamentally changed the way data on the pandemic is reported, removing the aggregation of hospital data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and into the CDC's parent organization, the Department of Health and Human, Has Been Transferred Services (HHS).
There were concerns at the time that this was an attempt to limit the public's ability to see how bad the pandemic was – concerns that were heightened when the data stopped being released when it came in. However, some recent reports indicated that the change was primarily the work of White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Deborah Birx, who wanted greater control over data collection and processing. Regardless of the motivation, however, the data received at HHS was only made public through weekly summaries.
Until now. Someone passed the daily reports on to NPR who found the reports weren't all they could be but could still be useful to public health professionals.
These data in the daily reports focus on the hospital's ability to treat COVID-19 patients. This includes things like the availability of hospital beds, ICU capacity, and the use of ventilators. This can help track changes in pandemic-related health needs in real time. For example, NPR notes that ICU bed occupancy has increased about 15 percent over the past month, which has seen a steady increase in positive tests (although it's likely too early to track the current increase in cases). While the weekly summaries would take a rough look at how the pandemic is affecting our hospital system, they're probably too rough to provide the kind of detailed analysis researchers and public health officials need to examine COVID-19's progress and understand.
So who has access to the daily reports? According to the NPR, the number is limited to "a few dozen government employees from HHS and its agencies". Only a single member of the White House's coronavirus task force, Admiral Brett Giroir, appears to have received the material. Oddly enough, this seems to suggest that Dr. Birx, who made the changes due to her desire for the data, has no direct access to it.
About 800 state health authorities also have access to daily reports, but by default only for their own states. HHS advised NPR that these officials would need to ask permission to see the data from other states. This creates a potential hurdle for officials in states like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where a large overlapping metropolitan area requires careful coordination.
Health experts indicated in the NPR reports that there are two problems here. The first is that the report does not provide a background on the capabilities of different hospitals. Some smaller hospitals may make an effort to care for patients when the ICU capacity has dropped to 10 percent. Big ones can handle this with ease. The second problem is that daily access to changes in hospital availability could help health officials target local behavior, both by deliberately limiting activities and simply using them to motivate the public to take the pandemic more seriously.
Providing the daily data, as mentioned above, would allow researchers to better analyze the impact of the pandemic on health resources. And, of course, that could help HHS itself, as independent researchers could be doing analysis that HHS either doesn't have the staff to do or hasn't considered.
While it is regrettable that the government does not make this data available to the public, it will be retained should policies change in the future.