Patchwork approach to contact tracing hampers national recovery

https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/514233-patchwork-approach-to-contact-tracing-hampers-national-recovery

Patchwork approach to contact tracing hampers national recovery | TheHill

A patchwork approach to contact tracing across state health departments is making it increasingly difficult to know where people are getting exposed to COVID-19.

While some states like Louisiana and Washington state publicly track detailed data related to COVID-19 cases in bars, camps, daycares, churches, worksites and restaurants, most states do not, creating obstacles to preventing future cases.

The extensive spread of the virus, combined with the country’s 50-state approach to pandemic response, has led to a dearth of information about where transmissions are occurring. Those shortcomings are in turn complicating efforts to safely open the economy and to understand the risks associated with certain activities and settings.

Experts know COVID-19 spreads in crowded indoor spaces, but more specifics could help state and local lawmakers strike a better balance between public health needs and those of the economy.

“If you want to take a more targeted approach to public health measures, the more information you have the better,” said Joshua Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation and an infectious disease epidemiologist.

“Rather than have a blunt, close-everything-down approach, you could be a bit more targeted and surgical about how you implement certain measures,” he added.

The Hill asked every state for information about the data they collect and share as part of their contact tracing programs, one of the main tools public health officials have to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Most states release information about outbreaks and cases at congregate settings like nursing homes, meatpacking plants, and prisons, which comprise the majority of cases. But there is less information publicly available about the numbers of cases or outbreaks tied to other settings commonly visited by people.

A handful of states including ArkansasColoradoKansasLouisianaMaryland, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington track and publicly release data on the settings where COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring, according to responses from state health departments.

For example, Louisiana has tied 468 cases to bars in the state, but most of the new cases in the past week have been tied to food processing plants.

In The Hill’s review of publicly available state data, other settings for COVID-19 transmission include restaurants, childcare centers, gyms, colleges and schools, churches, retailers, weddings and other private social events. It is not clear how widely those settings contributed to infections because widespread transmission of the virus means many people who get sick do not get interviewed by contact tracers — over the past week, there has been an average of 42,000 confirmed cases, though many more are likely going undetected.

State health departments in Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia told The Hill they don’t track location data.

Utah tracks outbreaks and cases tied to workplaces and schools, but not restaurants or bars.

Arizona, California, Delaware, Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania track infection locations, but don’t release it to the public.

“The number of people getting COVID-19 from isolated, identifiable outbreaks, such as those in long term care facilities, is decreasing, and more people are contracting COVID-19 from being out and about in their community, such as when visiting restaurants and bars,” said Maggi Mumma, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Bars, indoor dining and gyms are still closed in most of New York and New Jersey, so there is no current data to track for those settings.

But the state health departments also don’t release data on outbreaks or cases tied to other settings like childcare or retail stores.

MinnesotaMontanaNorth Dakota and Wisconsin release the number of cases tied to outbreaks in the community but do not go into specifics about possible transmission sites.

For example, Minnesota lists nearly 7,000 cases as being tied to “community” exposure, but that includes settings like restaurants, bars and workspaces.

In Iowa, a state health department spokesperson said the agency is working on extracting and sharing this type of data on its website, while Maine would not say if they track by specific location.

The remaining state health departments did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Hill and don’t have information about outbreaks or exposure settings on their websites.

Several states said local health departments may be tracking infection locations even if the state is not.

Experts said such a decentralized approach can miss outbreaks if local departments aren’t communicating with each other, meaning any data should be public.

“I do think it would be very valuable for states to make that information public,” said Crystal Watson, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“It helps us collectively get a better understanding as policymakers, as people trying to help in the response. It can also help with personal decision making for people to understand … where it’s most dangerous to go related to getting infected,” Watson said.

The disparities between state health departments are partially due to a lack of federal guidance.

There are no federal requirements on the information contact tracers collect; guidelines vary from state to state, and sometimes from county to county.

Tracking data about where people are getting sick would allow states to take a “cluster busting” approach, experts said, by working backwards from confirmed cases to find where patients might have first contracted the disease, potentially stopping future outbreaks.

That approach requires a change in mindset for contact tracers, who typically focus on reaching close contacts of confirmed cases who might have been exposed to the virus. But research shows between 10 and 20 percent of people are responsible for about 80 percent of new infections, mostly through so-called super-spreader events.

“We know that the way this virus has transmitted is highly clustered groups and anytime you have settings where a lot of people are together in one place,” said Kaiser’s Michaud.

“Collecting good information on this — the cluster busting approach — is a good way to find out where your prevention efforts can have the best bang for your buck,” he said.

At the same time, some state programs are still not operating at full force and are struggling to keep up with widespread infections.

“I think that many parts of the country, especially outside of the Northeast … simply have too many cases to use contact tracing as the primary public health measure to control cases,”  said Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health.

“It’s just not enough,” he said. “We just don’t have enough resources, and in a lot of these places enough contact tracers, to follow up on all of the cases.”

 

 

 

 

 

Billions in Hospital Virus Aid Rested on Compliance With Private Vendor

Billions in Hospital Virus Aid Rested on Compliance With Private ...

The Department of Health and Human Services told hospitals in April that reporting to the vendor, TeleTracking Technologies, was a “prerequisite to payment.”

The Trump administration tied billions of dollars in badly needed coronavirus medical funding this spring to hospitals’ cooperation with a private vendor collecting data for a new Covid-19 database that bypassed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The highly unusual demand, aimed at hospitals in coronavirus hot spots using funds passed by Congress with no preconditions, alarmed some hospital administrators and even some federal health officials.

The office of the health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, laid out the requirement in an April 21 email obtained by The New York Times that instructed hospitals to make a one-time report of their Covid-19 admissions and intensive care unit beds to TeleTracking Technologies, a company in Pittsburgh whose $10.2 million, five-month government contract has drawn scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

“Please be aware that submitting this data will inform the decision-making on targeted Relief Fund payments and is a prerequisite to payment,” the message read.

The financial condition, which has not been previously reported, applied to money from a $100 billion “coronavirus provider relief fund” established by Congress as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed by President Trump on March 27. Two days later, the administration instructed hospitals to make daily reports to the C.D.C., only to change course.

“Another data reporting ask,” a regional official in the health department informed colleagues in an email exchange obtained by The Times, adding: “It comes with $$ incentive. We really need a consolidated message on the reporting/data requests, this is past ridiculous.”

A colleague replied, “Another wrinkle. What a mess.”

The disclosure of the demand in April is the most striking example to surface of the department’s efforts to expand the role of private companies in health data collection, a practice that critics say infringes on what has long been a central mission of the C.D.C. Last month, the federal health department moved beyond financial incentives and abruptly ordered hospitals to send daily coronavirus reports to TeleTracking, not the C.D.C., raising concerns about transparency and reliability of the data.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services say that the moves were necessary to improve and streamline data collection in a crisis, and that the one-time reports collected in April by TeleTracking were not available from any other source.

“The national health system has not been challenged in this way in any time in recent history,” Caitlin Oakley, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement, adding that TeleTracking offered a “standardized national hospital capacity tracking system which provided more real-time, better informed data to make decisions from.”

But critics remain alarmed.

“In the middle of a pandemic, the Trump administration is using funds meant to support hospitals as a tool to coerce them to use an unproven, untrusted and deeply flawed system that sidelines public health experts,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement.

In a statement, TeleTracking said it has three decades of experience providing health care systems “with actionable data and unprecedented visibility to make better, faster decisions.”

Still, public health experts and hospital executives are puzzled as to why the health agency chose such a difficult time to employ an untested private vendor rather than improve the C.D.C.’s National Healthcare Safety Network, a decades-old disease tracking system that was deeply familiar to hospitals and state health departments.

The N.H.S.N., as it is known, had built up trust over decades of working with hospitals and state health departments. Administrators were reluctant to make the switch.

“People — especially in public health and clinical health — are very protective of their data, so that trust factor is certainly an issue,” said Patina Zarcone, the director of informatics for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “The fear of having their data leaked or misused or used for a purpose that they weren’t aware of or agreed to — I think that’s the biggest rub.”

Ms. Oakley said the C.D.C.’s system was “not designed for use in a disaster response” and could not adapt quickly in a crisis. Allies of the C.D.C. say withholding taxpayer dollars from the CARES Act in lieu of cooperation was an inappropriate effort to push hospitals into a system they were reluctant to use.

“It’s an absolutely enormous lever,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. “It’s a compulsion to oblige institutions to report to this TeleTracking system because they knew if it weren’t tied to money, it wouldn’t happen.”

The Pittsburgh company has no obvious ties to the Trump administration. Rather, the push appears to be part of a broader privatization. The Health and Human Services Department has also asked the Minnesota-based manufacturer 3M “to create, and continuously update, a nationwide clinical data set on Covid-19 treatment,” according to documents obtained by The Times.

The effort is separate from the TeleTracking data collection. Tim Post, a company spokesman, said that because 3M already operates hospital information systems, it is “uniquely positioned,” with the permission of its clients, to submit information to the health department to help officials study disease patterns and recommend treatment options.

Some experts say this kind of cooperation with the private sector is long overdue. But the push also appears to be driven at least in part by an intensifying rift between the C.D.C., based in Atlanta, and officials at the White House and Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of the disease control centers.

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, have taken a dim view of the C.D.C. and believe its reporting systems were inadequate. In a recent interview, Michael Caputo, the spokesman for Mr. Azar, accused the C.D.C. of having “a tantrum.”

Accurate hospital data — including information about coronavirus caseloads, deaths, bed capacity and personal protective equipment — is essential to tracking the pandemic and guiding government decisions about how to distribute scarce resources, like ventilators and the drug remdesivir, the only approved treatment for hospitalized Covid-19 patients.

The health agency has set up a new database, H.H.S. Protect, to collect and analyze Covid-19 data from a range of sources. TeleTracking feeds hospital data to that system.

But the public rollout of H.H.S. Protect has been rocky. The nonpartisan Covid Tracking Project identified big disparities between hospital data reported by states and the federal government and deemed the federal data “unreliable.”

The tension dates to March, when the novel coronavirus was making its first surge in the United States

On March 29, Vice President Mike Pence, charged by Mr. Trump with overseeing the federal response, informed hospital administrators that the C.D.C. was setting up a “Covid-19 Module,” and asked them to file daily reports which, he said, were “necessary in monitoring the spread of severe Covid-19 illness and death as well as the impact to hospitals.”

But around that time, TeleTracking submitted a proposal for data collection to the Trump administration, through an initiative, ASPR Next, created to promote innovation. On April 10, TeleTracking was awarded its contract.

The health department’s spokeswoman said the intent was to complement the C.D.C., not compete with it. Like the C.D.C.’s network, TeleTracking’s system requires manual reporting on a daily basis. But in June, Ms. Murray demanded the administration provide more information about what she called a “multimillion-dollar contract” for a “duplicative health data system.”

Some hospital officials also objected to the change.

“We have been directing our hospitals to N.H.S.N.,” Jackie Gatz, a vice president of the Missouri Hospital Association, wrote to a regional health and human services official in an email obtained by The Times, “and now this email with a much greater carrot — CARES Act distributions — is routing them to TeleTracking.”

When the order was delivered, flaws had already emerged in the new system.

“H.H.S. has acknowledged long wait times for those calling for technical support, and indicated that TeleTracking recently added 100 staff to respond to call center requests,” the American Hospital Association wrote to its members in a “special bulletin” on April 23. “They also are directing hospitals to leave a message if they are unable to reach someone live.”

At the time, hospitals had the option of making their daily coronavirus reports to TeleTracking or the C.D.C. Few were using the new database.

In June, the administration again used a stick to demand that hospitals report to TeleTracking, this time in order to obtain remdesivir. By July, with Dr. Birx pushing to bolster hospital compliance, the administration instructed hospitals to stop filing daily reports to the C.D.C. and to send them to TeleTracking instead.

One official at a major academic hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering officials in Washington, said the switch left her “unable to sleep at night.”

“Ethically, it felt like they had taken a very trusted institution in the C.D.C. and all of that trust built up with many public health people,” she said, then “moved it onto a politically and financially motivated portion of this response.”

Health and human services officials say the government now has a much more complete picture of hospital bed capacity, with more than 90 percent of hospitals reporting. But Dr. Janis M. Orlowski, the chief health officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, who worked with Dr. Birx and the administration to bolster hospital reporting, said that she was “stunned” by the switch and that the increase in reporting came because of efforts by her group and others, not the TeleTracking system.

Dr. Orlowski said the data and maps now published on the administration’s H.H.S. Protect data hub are “just not as sophisticated as the C.D.C.”

The switch also generated pushback inside the C.D.C., where officials have refused to analyze and publish TeleTracking data, saying they could not be assured of its quality and had continuing questions about its accuracy, according to a senior federal health official.

Administration officials say the C.D.C. is working with a little-known office in the executive branch — the United States Digital Service — to build a “modernized automation process” in which data will continue to flow directly to the Department of Health and Human Services. But the project is in its infancy, one senior federal health official said.

Critics say that if the department believed the C.D.C.’s health network had problems, those should have been fixed.

“We have a public health system that depends upon communication from hospitals to state health departments to the C.D.C.,” said Dr. Schaffner, the Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert. “It’s very well established. Can it be improved? Of course. But to cut out the public health infrastructure and report to a private firm essential public health data is misguided in the extreme.”

 

 

 

Covid-19 Data in the US Is an ‘Information Catastrophe’

https://www.wired.com/story/covid-19-data-in-the-us-is-an-information-catastrophe/#intcid=recommendations_wired-bottom-recirc-personalized_31e95638-88d6-439c-85a2-db8f6235da26_text2vec1-mab

Covid-19 Data in the US Is an 'Information Catastrophe' | WIRED

The order to reroute CDC hospitalization figures raised accuracy concerns. But that’s just one of the problems with how the country collects health data.

TWO WEEKS AGO, the Department of Health and Human Services stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of control of national data on Covid-19 infections in hospitalized patients. Instead of sending the data to the CDC’s public National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), the department ordered hospitals to send it to a new data system, run for the agency by a little-known firm in Tennessee.

The change took effect immediately. First, the hospitalization data collected up until July 13 vanished from the CDC’s site. One day later, it was republished—but topped by a note that the NHSN Covid-19 dashboard would no longer be updated.

Fury over the move was immediate. All the major organizations that represent US public health professionals objected vociferously. A quickly written protest letter addressed to Vice President Mike Pence, HHS secretary Alex Azar, and Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, garnered signatures from more than 100 health associations and research groups. The reactions made visible the groups’ concerns that data could be lost or duplicated, and underlined their continual worry that the CDC is being undercut and sidelined. But it had no other effect. The new HHS portal, called HHS Protect, is up and running.

Behind the crisis lies a difficult reality: Covid-19 data in the US—in fact, almost all public health data—is chaotic: not one pipe, but a tangle. If the nation had a single, seamless system for collecting, storing, and analyzing health data, HHS and the Coronavirus Task Force would have had a much harder time prying the CDC’s Covid-19 data loose. Not having a comprehensive system made the HHS move possible, and however well or badly the department handles the data it will now receive, the lack of a comprehensive data system is harming the US coronavirus response.

“Every health system, every public health department, every jurisdiction really has their own ways of going about things,” says Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s very difficult to get an accurate and timely and geographically resolved picture of what’s happening in the US, because there’s such a jumble of data.”

Data systems are wonky objects, so it may help to step back and explain a little history. First, there’s a reason why hospitalization data is important: Knowing whether the demand for beds is rising or falling can help illuminate how hard-hit any area is, and whether reopening in that region is safe.

Second, what the NHSN does is important too. It’s a 15-year-old database, organized in 2005 out of several streams of information that were already flowing to the CDC, which receives data from hospitals and other health care facilities about anything that affects the occurrence of infections once someone is admitted. That includes rates of pneumonia from use of ventilators, infections after surgery, and urinary tract infections from catheters, for instance—but also statistics about usage of antibiotics, adherence to hand hygiene, complications from dialysis, occurrence of the ravaging intestinal infection C. difficile, and rates of health care workers getting flu shots. Broadly, it assembles a portrait of the safety of hospitals, nursing homes, and chronic care institutions in the US, and it shares that data with researchers and with other statistical dashboards published by other HHS agencies such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Because NHSN only collects institutional data, and Covid-19 infections occur both inside institutions such as nursing homes and hospitals, and in the outside world, HHS officials claimed the database was a bad fit for the coronavirus pandemic. But people who have worked with it argue that since the network had already devised channels for receiving all that data from health care systems, it ought to continue to do so—especially since that data isn’t easy to abstract.

“If you are lucky enough to work in a large health care system that has a sophisticated electronic medical record, then possibly you can push one button and have all the data flow up to NHSN,” says Angela Vassallo, an epidemiologist who formerly worked at HHS and is now chief clinical adviser to the infection-prevention firm Covid Smart. “But that’s a rare experience. Most hospitals have an infection preventionist, usually an entire team, responsible for transferring that data by hand.”

There lies the core problem. Despite big efforts back during the Obama administration to funnel all US health care data into one large-bore pipeline, what exists now resembles what you’d find behind the walls of an old house: pipes going everywhere, patched at improbable angles, some of them leaky, and some of them dead ends. To take some examples from the coronavirus response: Covid-19 hospital admissions were measured by the NHSN (before HHS intervened), but cases coming to emergency departments were reported in a different database, and test results were reported first to local or state health departments, and then sent up to the CDC.

Covid-19 data in particular has been so messy that volunteer efforts have sprung up to fix it. These include the COVID Tracking Project—compiled from multiple sources and currently the most comprehensive set of statistics, used by media organizations and apparently by the White House—and Covid Exit Strategy, which uses data from the COVID Tracking Project and the CDC.

Last week, the American Public Health Association, the Johns Hopkins Center, and Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by former CDC director Tom Frieden, released a comprehensive report on Covid-19 data collection. Pulling no punches, they called the current situation an “information catastrophe.”

The US, they found, does not have national-, state-, county-, or city-level standards for Covid-19 data. Every state maintains some form of coronavirus dashboard (and some have several), but every dashboard is different; no two states present the same data categories, nor visualize them the same way. The data presented by states is “inconsistent, incomplete, and inaccessible,” the group found: Out of 15 key pieces of data that each state should be presenting—things such as new confirmed and probable cases, new tests performed, and percentage of tests that are positive—only 38 percent of the indicators are reported in some way, with limitations, and 60 percent are not reported at all.

“This is not the fault of the states—there was no federal leadership,” Frieden emphasized in an interview with WIRED. “And this is legitimately difficult. But it’s not impossible. It just requires commitment.”

But the problem of incomplete, messy data is older and deeper than this pandemic. Four scholars from the health-policy think tank the Commonwealth Fund called out the broader problem just last week in an essay in The New England Journal of Medicine, naming health data as one of four interlocking health care crises exposed by Covid-19. (The others were reliance on employer-provided health care, financial losses in rural and primary-care practices, and the effect of the pandemic on racial and ethinic minorities.)

“There is no national public health information system—electronic or otherwise—that enables authorities to identify regional variation in the demand for, and supply of, resources critical to managing Covid-19,” they wrote. The fix they recommended: a national public health information system that would record diagnoses in real time, monitor the materials hospitals need, and link hospitals and outpatient care, state and local health departments, and laboratories and manufacturers to maintain real-time reporting on disease occurrence, preventive measures, and equipment production.

They are not the first to say this is needed. In February, 2019, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists launched a campaign to get Congress to appropriate $1 billion in new federal funding over 10 years specifically to improve data flows. “The nation’s public health data systems are antiquated, rely on obsolete surveillance methods, and are in dire need of security upgrades,” the group wrote in its launch statement. “Sluggish, manual processes—paper records, spreadsheets, faxes, and phone calls—still in widespread use, have consequences, most notably delayed detection and response to public health threats.”

Defenders of the HHS decision to switch data away from the CDC say that improving problems like that is what the department was aiming for. (“The CDC’s old hospital data-gathering operation once worked well monitoring hospital information across the country, but it’s an inadequate system today,” HHS assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo told CNN.) If that’s an accurate claim, during a global pandemic is a challenging time to do it.

“We were opposed to this, because trying to do this in the middle of a disaster is not the time,” says Georges Benjamin, a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association, which was a signatory to the letter protesting moving data from the NHSN. “It was just clearly done without a lot of foresight. I don’t think they understand the way data moves into and through the system.”

The past week has shown how correct that concern was. Immediately after the switch, according to CNBC, states were blacked out from receiving data on their own hospitals, because the hospitals were not able to manage the changeover from the CDC to the HHS system. On Tuesday, Ryan Panchadsaram, cofounder of Covid Exit Strategy and former deputy chief technology officer for the US, highlighted on Twitter that data on the HHS dashboard, advertised as updating daily, was five days old. And Tuesday night, the COVID Tracking Project staff warned in a long analysis: “Hospitalization data from states that was highly stable a few weeks ago is currently fragmented, and appears to be a significant undercount.”

When the Covid-19 crisis is over, as everyone hopes it will be someday, the US will still have to wrestle with the questions it raised. One of those will be how the richest country on the planet, with some of the best clinical care in the world, was content with a health information system that left it so uninformed about a disease affecting so many of its citizens. The answer could involve tearing the public-health data system down and building it again from scratch.

“This is a deeply entrenched problem, where there is no single person who has not done their job,” Rivers says. “Our systems are old. They were not updated. We haven’t invested in them. If you’re trying to imagine a system where everyone reports the same information in the same way and we can push a button and have all the information we might want, that will take a complete overhaul of what we have.”

 

 

 

 

The Fed’s independence helped it save the US economy in 2008 – the CDC needs the same authority today

https://theconversation.com/the-feds-independence-helped-it-save-the-us-economy-in-2008-the-cdc-needs-the-same-authority-today-142593

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The image of scientists standing beside governors, mayors or the president has become common during the pandemic. Even the most cynical politician knows this public health emergency cannot be properly addressed without relying on the scientific knowledge possessed by these experts.

Yet, ultimately, U.S. government health experts have limited power. They work at the discretion of the White House, leaving their guidance subject to the whims of politicians and them less able to take urgent action to contain the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines only to later revise them after the White House intervened. The administration has also undermined its top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over his blunt warnings that the pandemic is getting worse – a view that contradicts White House talking points.

And most recently, the White House stripped the CDC of control of coronavirus data, alarming health experts who fear it will be politicized or withheld.

In the realm of monetary policy, however, there is an agency with experts trusted to make decisions on their own in the best interests of the U.S. economy: the Federal Reserve. As I describe in my recent book, “Stewards of the Market,” the Fed’s independence allowed it to take politically risky actions that helped rescue the economy during the financial crisis of 2008.

That’s why I believe we should give the CDC the same type of authority as the Fed so that it can effectively guide the public through health emergencies without fear of running afoul of politicians.

 

The paradox of expertise

There is a paradox inherent in the relationship between political leaders and technical experts in government.

Experts have the training and skill to apply scientific knowledge in complex biological and economic systems, yet democratically elected political leaders may overrule or ignore their advice for ill or good.

This happened in May when the CDC, the federal agency charged with controlling the spread of disease, removed advice regarding the dangers of singing in church choirs from its website. It did not do so because of new evidence. Rather, it was because of political pressure from the White House to water down the guidance for religious groups.

Similarly, the White House undermined the CDC’s guidance on school reopenings and has pressured it to revise them. So far, it seems the CDC has rebuffed the request.

The ability of elected leaders to ignore scientists – or the scientists’ acquiescence to policies they believe are detrimental to public welfare – is facilitated by many politicians’ penchant for confident assertion of knowledge and the scientist’s trained reluctance to do so.

Compare Fauci’s repeated comment that “there is much we don’t know about the virus” with President Donald Trump’s confident assertion that “we have it totally under control.”

 

Experts with independence

Given these constraints on technical expertise, the performance of the Fed in the financial crisis of 2008 offers an informative example that may be usefully applied to the CDC today.

The Federal Reserve is not an executive agency under the president, though it is chartered and overseen by Congress. It was created in 1913 to provide economic stability, and its powers have expanded to guard against both depression and crippling inflation.

At its founding, the structure of the Fed was a political compromise designed make it independent within the government in order to de-politicize its economic policy decisions. Today its decisions are made by a seven-member board of governors and a 12-member Federal Open Market Committee. The members, almost all Ph.D. economists, have had careers in academia, business and government. They come together to analyze economic data, develop a common understanding of what they believe is happening and create policy that matches their shared analysisThis group policymaking is optimal when circumstances are highly uncertain, such as in 2008 when the global financial system was melting down.

The Fed was the lead actor in preventing the system’s collapse and spent several trillion dollars buying risky financial assets and lending to foreign central banks – decisions that were pivotal in calming financial markets but would have been much harder or may not have happened at all without its independent authority.

The Fed’s independence is sufficiently ingrained in our political culture that its chair can have a running disagreement with the president yet keep his job and authority.

 

Putting experts at the wheel

A health crisis needs trusted experts to guide decision-making no less than an economic one does. This suggests the CDC or some re-imagined version of it should be made into an independent agency.

Like the Fed, the CDC is run by technical experts who are often among the best minds in their fields. Like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for both analysis and crisis response. Like the Fed, the domain of the CDC is prone to politicization that may interfere with rational response. And like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for decisions that affect fundamental aspects of the quality of life in the United States.

Were the CDC independent right now, we would likely see a centralized crisis management effort that relies on the best science, as opposed to the current patchwork approach that has failed to contain the outbreak nationally. We would also likely see stronger and consistent recommendations on masks, social distancing and the safest way to reopen the economy and schools.

Independence will not eliminate the paradox of technical expertise in government. The Fed itself has at times succumbed to political pressure. And Trump would likely try to undermine an independent CDC’s legitimacy if its policies conflicted with his political agenda – as he has tried to do with the central bank.

But independence provides a strong shield that would make it much more likely that when political calculations are at odds with science, science wins.

 

 

 

 

How Many People in the U.S. Are Hospitalized With COVID-19? Who Knows?

https://www.propublica.org/article/how-many-people-in-the-us-are-hospitalized-with-covid-19-who-knows?utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=feature

 

The Trump administration told hospitals to stop reporting data to the CDC, and report it to HHS instead. Vice President Mike Pence said the information would continue to be released publicly. It hasn’t worked out as promised.

In mid-July, the Trump administration instructed hospitals to change the way they reported data on their coronavirus patients, promising the new approach would provide better, more up-to-the-minute information about the virus’s toll and allow resources and supplies to be quickly dispatched across the country.

Instead, the move has created widespread confusion, leaving some states in the dark about their hospitals’ remaining bed and intensive care capacity and, at least temporarily, removing this information from public view. As a result, it has been unclear how many people are in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 at a time when the number of infected patients nationally has been soaring.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been seen as a key metric of both the coronavirus’s toll and the health care system’s ability to deal with it.

Since early in the pandemic, hospitals had been reporting data on COVID-19 patients to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through its National Healthcare Safety Network, which traditionally tracks hospital-acquired infections.

In a memo dated July 10, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told hospitals to abruptly change course — to stop reporting their data to the CDC and instead to submit it to HHS through a new portal run by a company called TeleTracking. The change took effect within days. Vice President Mike Pence said the administration would continue releasing the data publicly, as the CDC had done.

Almost immediately, the CDC pulled its historical data offline, only to repost it under pressure a couple days later. Meanwhile the website for the administration’s new portal promised to update numbers on a daily basis, but, as of Friday morning, the site hadn’t been updated since July 23. (HHS is posting some data daily on a different federal website but not representative estimates for each state.)

“The most pernicious portion of it is that at the state level and at the regional level we lost our situational awareness,” said Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association. “At the end of this, we may have a fantastic data product out of HHS. I will not beat them up for trying to do something positive about the data, but the rollout of this has been absolutely a catastrophe.”

The Missouri Hospital Association had taken the daily data submitted by its hospitals to the CDC and created a state dashboard. The transition knocked that offline. The dashboard came back online this week, but Dillon said in a follow-up email, “the data is only as good as our ability to know that everyone is reporting the same data, in the correct way, for tracking and comparison purposes at the state level.”

Other states, including Idaho and South Carolina, also experienced temporary information blackouts. And The COVID Tracking Project, which has been following the pandemic’s toll across the country based on state data, noted issues with its figures. “These problems mean that our hospitalization data — a crucial metric of the COVID-19 pandemic — is, for now, unreliable, and likely an undercount. We do not think that either the state-level hospitalization data or the new federal data is reliable in isolation,” according to a blog post Tuesday on the group’s website.

Making matters more complicated, the administration has changed the information that it is requiring hospitals to report, adding many elements, such as the age range of admitted COVID-19 patients, and removing others. As of this week, for instance, HHS told hospitals to stop reporting the total number of deaths they’ve had since Jan. 1, the total number of COVID-19 deaths and the total number of COVID-19 admissions. (Hospitals still report daily figures, just not historical ones.)

“Massachusetts hospitals are continuing to navigate the dramatic increase of daily data requirements,” the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association said in a newsletter on Monday. “MHA and other state health officials continue to raise concerns about the administrative burden and questionable usefulness of some of the data.”

“Hospitals across the country were given little time to adjust to the unnecessary and seismic changes put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which fundamentally shift both the volume of data and the platforms through which data is submitted,” the association’s CEO, Steve Walsh, said in the newsletter.

A number of state websites also noted problems with hospital data. For days, the Texas Department of State Health Services included a note on its dashboard that it was “reporting incomplete hospitalization numbers … due to a transition in reporting to comply with new federal requirements.” That came just as the state was experiencing a peak in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

California likewise noted problems.

A spokesperson for HHS acknowledged some bumps in the transition but said in an email: “We are pleased with the progress we have made during this transition and the actionable data it is providing. We have had some states and hospital associations report difficulty with the new collection system. When HHS identifies errors in the data submissions, we work directly with the state or hospital association to quickly resolve them.

“Our objective with this new approach is to collaborate with the states and the healthcare system. The goal of full transparency is to acknowledge when we find discrepancies in the data and correct them.”

Last week, HHS noted, 93% of its prioritized list of hospitals, excluding psychiatric, rehabilitation and religious nonmedical facilities, reported data at least once during the week. (The guidance to hospitals asks them to report every day.)

Asked about the lack of timely data on its public website, HHS said it will update the site to “make it clear that the estimates are only updated weekly.” HHS is now posting a date file each day on healthdata.gov with aggregate information on hospitalizations by state.

But unlike the prior releases from CDC, which provided estimates on hospital capacity based on the responses, this file only gives totals for the hospitals that reported data. It’s unclear which hospitals did not report, how large they are, or whether the reported data is representative.

It’s also unclear if it’s accurate. New York state, for instance, reported that fewer than 600 people were currently hospitalized with COVID-19, as of Friday. Federal data released the same day pegged the number of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations at around 1,800.

Louisiana says more than 1,500 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The federal data puts the figure at fewer than 700.

Nationally, The COVID Tracking Project reports that more than 56,000 people were hospitalized around the country with the virus, as of Thursday.

The data released by HHS on Friday puts the figure at more than 70,000.

NPR reported this week that it had found irregularities in the process used by the Trump administration to award the contract to manage the hospital data. Among other things, HHS directly contacted TeleTracking about the contract and the agency used a process that is more often used for innovative scientific research, NPR reported.

An HHS spokesperson told NPR that the contract process it used is a “common mechanism … for areas of research interest,” and said that the system used by the CDC was “fraught with challenges.”

Ryan Panchadsaram, co-founder of the tracking website CovidExitStrategy.org, has been critical of the problems created by the hospital data changeover.

“Without real-time accurate monitoring, you can’t make quick and fast and accurate decisions in a crisis,” he said in an interview. “This is just so important. This indicator that’s gone shows how the health system in a state is doing.”

Dillon of the Missouri Hospital Association said the administration could have handled this differently. For big technology projects, he noted, there is often a well-publicized transition with information sessions, an educational program and, perhaps, running the old system and the new one in parallel.

This “was extremely abrupt,” he said. “That is not akin to anything you would expect from HHS about how you would implement a program.”

 

Cartoon – Under Control

Coronavirus | The Manchester Journal | Manchester Breaking News ...

Cartoon – Pandemic Management

Reflections on an Ad Industry at War With Itself | MediaVillage

How deadly is COVID-19? A biostatistician explores the question

https://theconversation.com/how-deadly-is-covid-19-a-biostatistician-explores-the-question-142253?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201680716207&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201680716207+Version+A+CID_c211e1b0b6c4b69b3a29a9d1624a2ab6&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=How%20deadly%20is%20COVID-19%20A%20biostatistician%20explores%20the%20question

How deadly is COVID-19? A biostatistician explores the question

The latest statistics, as of July 10, show COVID-19-related deaths in U.S. are just under 1,000 per day nationally, which is down from a peak average of about 2,000 deaths per day in April. However, cases are once again rising very substantially, which is worrisome as it may indicate that substantial increases in COVID-19 deaths could follow. How do these numbers compare to deaths of other causes? Ron Fricker, statistician and disease surveillance expert from Virginia Tech, explains how to understand the magnitude of deaths from COVID-19.

As a disease surveillance expert, what are some of the tools you have to understand the deaths caused by a disease?

Disease surveillance is the process by which we try to understand the incidence and prevalence of diseases across the country, often with the particular goal of looking for increases in disease incidence. The challenge is separating signal from noise, by which I mean trying to discern an increase in disease incidence (the signal) from the day-to-day fluctuations in that disease (the noise). The hope is to identify any increase as quickly as possible so that medical and public health professionals can intervene and try to mitigate the disease’s effects on the population.

A critical tool in this effort is data. Often disease data is collected and aggregated by local and state public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from data that is reported by doctors and medical facilities. Surveillance systems then use this data and a variety of algorithms to attempt to find a signal amidst the noise.

Early on, many people pointed out that the flu has tens of thousands of deaths a year, and so COVID-19 didn’t seem so bad. What’s wrong with that comparison?

The CDC estimates the average number of flu-related deaths since 2010-11 is around 36,000 per year. This varies from a low of 12,000 deaths in 2011-12 to a high of 61,000 deaths in 2017-18. Thus, the number of COVID-19 deaths to date is three to four times greater than the annual average number of flu-related deaths over the past decade; it is 10 times larger when compared to the 2010-11 flu season but only about twice as large compared to 2017-18.

To make this a fair comparison, note that seasonal influenza mostly occurs over a few months, usually in late fall or early winter. So, the time periods are roughly comparable, with most of the COVID-19-related deaths occurring since late March. However, COVID-19 does not appear to be seasonal, and fatalities are a lagging measure because the time from infection to death is weeks if not months in duration, so the multiples in the previous paragraph will be greater by the end of the year.

Furthermore, while death rates have been coming down from a peak of more than 2,700 on April 21, 2020, the United States is now averaging just under 1,000 deaths per day as of July 10, and given the dramatic increase in cases of late, we should expect the fatality rate to further rise. For example, the University of Washington’s IHME model currently predicts slightly more than 208,000 COVID-19-related deaths by November 1.

So, by any comparison, the COVID-19 death rate is significantly higher than the seasonal influenza death rate.

What are some comparisons that could provide some context in understanding the scale of deaths caused by COVID-19?

As of this writing, more than 130,000 people have died of COVID-19, and that total could grow to 200,000 or more by fall. Those numbers are so big, they’re hard to grasp.

Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is the largest football stadium in the United States. It holds 107,420 people, so no football stadium in the country is large enough to hold everyone who has died from COVID-19 thus far. By the time bowl season comes along, assuming we have a football season this year, the number of COVID-19 fatalities will likely exceed the capacity of the Rose and Cotton bowl stadiums combined.

The state of Wyoming has a population of slightly less than 600,000 people, so it’s the equivalent of one out of every five people in that state dying in the last four months. By this fall, the COVID-19 death total will be the equivalent of fully one-third of the people in Wyoming dying.

The populations of Grand Rapids, Michigan; Huntsville, Alabama; and Salt Lake City, Utah are each just over 200,000 people. Imagine if everyone in one of those cities died over the course of six months. That’s what COVID-19 may look like by fall.

How do COVID-19 deaths compare to chronic diseases like cancer or heart disease?

Today, COVID-19 ranks as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, following heart disease, cancer, accidents, lower chronic respiratory diseases and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause, with just over 647,000 Americans dying from it each year. Alzheimer’s disease, formerly the sixth largest cause of death, kills just over 121,000 people per year. If the University of Washington IHME model’s current prediction of COVID-19-related deaths comes to pass, COVID-19 will be the third leading cause of death in the United States by the end of the year.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2020 there will be an estimated 1.8 million new cancer cases diagnosed and 606,520 cancer deaths in the United States. Lung cancer is estimated to kill about 135,000 people in the US in 2020, so the number of COVID-19 deaths is currently equivalent and will exceed it soon. Of course, it is important to note that the COVID-19 deaths have occurred in about the past four months while the number of lung cancer deaths is for a year. So, COVID-19 deaths are occurring at roughly three times the rate of lung cancer deaths.

What are some historical comparisons that you think are useful in understanding the scale of deaths from COVID-19?

The 1918 influenza pandemic was similar in some ways to the current pandemic and different in other ways. One key difference is the age distribution of deaths, where COVID-19 is concentrated among older adults while the the 1918 pandemic affected all ages. In my state of Virginia, only 8% of the people who died in the 1918 pandemic were more than 50 years old, compared to more than 97% for COVID-19.

The CDC estimates that the 1918 pandemic resulted in about 675,000 deaths in the United States, so slightly more than five times the current number of COVID-19 deaths. In October of 1918, the worst month for the influenza pandemic, about 195,000 people died – well more than all who have died so far from COVID-19.

As with any historical comparison, there are important qualifiers. In this case, the influenza pandemic started in early 1918 and continued well into 1919, whereas COVID-19 deaths are for about one-third of a year (March through June). However, today the United States’ population is about three times the size of the population in 1918. These two factors roughly “cancel out,” and so it is reasonable to think about the 1918 epidemic being about five times worse than COVID-19, at least thus far.

In comparison to past wars, the U.S. has now had more deaths from COVID-19 than all the combat-related deaths in all the wars since the Korean War, including the Vietnam War and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In World War II there were 291,557 combat casualties. So the number of people who have died from COVID-19 thus far is about 45% of the WWII combat casualties. By the fall, it could be more than 70%.

Finally, note that the number of confirmed and probable deaths from COVID-19 in New York City (23,247 on July 10, 2020) is more than eight times the number who died in the 9/11 attack (2,753).

 

 

 

 

Tracking Our COVID-19 Response. Each state’s progress towards a new normal.

https://www.covidexitstrategy.org/

July 10 – Updated Color Scale
As a country we’ve reached a record number of cases. We’ve added a new color to the scale: “Bruised Red”. There were extremes that were not captured in our original scale. Our scale also has been adjusted to put more weight on “new cases per million” and “positivity”.
July 15 – ICU and Bed Occupancy – Not Publicly Reported by CDC Anymore
Unfortunately our data source for ICUs and beds has been removed by the CDC. Our hope is this loss of critical public health information is temporary. HHS is instituting a new process for collecting information from hospitals. The aggregate data from that system should be made public.

 

 

 

Covid-19 data is a public good. The US government must start treating it like one.

https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/07/17/1005391/covid-coronavirus-hospitalizations-data-access-cdc/

Data for the public good - O'Reilly Radar

The US has failed to prioritize a highly effective and economical intervention—providing quick and easy access to coronavirus data.

Earlier this week as a pandemic raged across the United States, residents were cut off from the only publicly available source of aggregated data on the nation’s intensive care and hospital bed capacity. When the Trump administration stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of control over coronavirus data, it also took that information away from the public.

 

I run a nonpartisan project called covidexitstrategy.org, which tracks how well states are fighting this virus. Our team is made up of public health and crisis experts with previous experience in the Trump and Obama administrations. We grade states on such critical measures as disease spread, hospital load, and the robustness of their testing. 

 

Why does this work matter? In a crisis, data informs good decision-making. Along with businesses, federal, state, and local public health officials and other agencies rely on us to help them decide which interventions to deploy and when workplaces and public spaces can safely reopen. Almost a million people have used our dashboards, with thousands coming back more than 200 times each.

To create our dashboards, we rely on multiple sources. One is the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), run by the CDC. Prior to July 14, hospitals reported the utilization and availability of intensive care and inpatient beds to the NHSN. This information, updated three times a week, was the only publicly available source of aggregated state-level hospital capacity data in the US.

With 31 states currently reporting increases in the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients, these utilization rates show how well their health systems will handle the surge of cases.

 

Having this information in real time is essential; the administration said the CDC’s system was insufficiently responsive and data collection needed to be streamlined. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) directed hospitals (pdf) to report their data to a new system called HHS Protect.

Unfortunately, by redirecting hospitals to a new system, it left everyone else in the dark. On July 14, the CDC removed the most recent data from its website. As we made our nightly update, we found it was missing. After significant public pressure, the existing maps and data are back—but the agency has added a disclaimer that the data will not be updated going forward.

 

This is unacceptable. This critical indicator was being shared multiple times a week, and now updates have been halted. US residents need a federal commitment that this data will continue to be refreshed and shared.

The public is being told that a lot of effort is going into the new system. An HHS spokesman told CNBC that the new database will deliver “more powerful insights” on the coronavirus. But the switch has rightly been criticized because this new data source is not yet available to the public. Our concerns are amplified by the fact that responsibility for the data has shifted from a known entity in the CDC to a new, as-yet-unnamed team within HHS.

I was part of the team that helped fix Healthcare.gov after the failed launch in 2013. One thing I learned was that the people who make their careers in the federal government—and especially those working at the center of a crisis—are almost universally well intentioned. They seek to do the right thing for the public they serve.

 

In the same spirit, and to build trust with the American people, this is an opportunity for HHS to make the same data it’s sharing with federal and state agencies available to the public. The system that HHS is using helps inform the vital work of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. From leaked documents, we know that reports for the task force are painstakingly detailed. They include county-level maps, indicators on testing robustness, and specific recommendations. All of this information belongs in the public domain.

This is also an opportunity for HHS to make this data machine readable and thereby more accessible to data scientists and data journalists. The Open Government Data Act, signed into law by President Trump, treats data as a strategic asset and makes it open by default. This act builds upon the Open Data Executive Order, which recognized that the data sets collected by the government are paid for by taxpayers and must be made available to them. 

As a country, the United States has lagged behind in so many dimensions of response to this crisis, from the availability of PPE to testing to statewide mask orders. Its treatment of data has lagged as well. On March 7, as this crisis was unfolding, there was no national testing data. Alexis Madrigal, Jeff Hammerbacher, and a group of volunteers started the COVID Tracking Project to aggregate coronavirus information from all 50 state websites into a single Google spreadsheet. For two months, until the CDC began to share data through its own dashboard, this volunteer project was the sole national public source of information on cases and testing.

With more than 150 volunteers contributing to the effort, the COVID Tracking Project sets the bar for how to treat data as an asset. I serve on the advisory board and am awed by what this group has accomplished. With daily updates, an API, and multiple download formats, they’ve made their data extraordinarily useful. Where the CDC’s data is cited 30 times in Google Scholar and approximately 10,000 times in Google search results, the COVID Tracking Project data is cited 299 times in Google Scholar and roughly 2 million times in Google search results.

 

Sharing reliable data is one of the most economical and effective interventions the United States has to confront this pandemic. With the Coronavirus Task Force daily briefings a thing of the past, it’s more necessary than ever for all covid-related data to be shared with the public. The effort required to defeat the pandemic is not just a federal response. It is a federal, state, local, and community response. Everyone needs to work from the same trusted source of facts about the situation on the ground.

Data is not a partisan affair or a bureaucratic preserve. It is a public trust—and a public resource.