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

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, 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 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.





Hospitals Emptied Out by Pandemic Push for Patients to Return

Empty Emergency Rooms Worry Doctors as Heart Attack, Stroke ...

After months of lock down, hospitals are eager to get patients back for routine care and elective procedures.

An executive at a Palm Beach hospital stands between a box of surgical masks and a Purell dispenser.

“We understand you haven’t been inside our hospitals for some time,” she says to the camera. The executive is delivering her line for a promotional video intended to get people back to hospitals after almost three months of avoiding the place at all costs. 

Moments later, the film crew records her chatting with a vascular surgeon in an idled operating room, who soothingly reassures that  a hospital is the cleanest place to be outside your home. “The hospital is safer than the grocery store,” the doctor says.

The video published on YouTube in mid-May is part of a marketing campaign by Tenet Healthcare, which operates 65 hospitals and about 250 ambulatory surgery centers. It’s one attempt to solve a problem the entire health-care industry faces: Most patients vanished when Covid-19 swept the country.

Billions in Losses

Much of routine health care came to a halt in March as hospitals cleared space for an expected wave of Covid-19 patients and authorities ordered a halt to surgeries and other procedures that could be postponed. The decline in volume has clobbered hospital finances, with the industry estimating it is losing $50 billion a month.

Emergency visits dropped by 42% in four weeks in April compared to the same period last year, the Centers for Disease Control reported June 3. The number of U.S. patients getting hospital care dropped by more than half in late March and early April compared to 2019, according to data from Strata Decision Technology, which provides software to hospitals.

Some of that rebounded modestly in May as distancing rules eased, but hospital volume is nowhere near pre-Covid levels. With the pandemic ongoing and many states still confirming hundreds of new cases daily, patients are hesitating to rush back to hospitals.

“The main thing that really is a gating factor at this point is patient comfort,” Tenet President and Chief Operating Officer Saumya Sutaria said at a recent virtual conference with investors. Tenet declined interview requests.

Free Masks

To counter the public’s fears, hospitals publicize what they’re doing to keep patients safe. They’re handing out masks at the door and spacing out chairs in waiting rooms. They’re steering Covid-19 patients to dedicated sites and testing staff regularly.

Hospitals need to show patients that their facilities are safe. At Catholic hospital chain Trinity Health, that includes moving patients through “Covid-free” zones with separate doors, elevators and waiting areas.

“We can put all of the outreach and marketing in place, but it’s only as effective as the people who execute those strategies,” said Julie Spencer Washington, Trinity’s chief marketing and communications officer.

The question for the entire industry is how quickly patients come back. The answer will depend on a constellation of related variables, including how reluctant people are to resume care, and the course of the pandemic. Future surges could force hospitals to shut down regular care again — and spook patients further.

Hospitals and doctors are going to have to do as much as they can as fast as they can until they can’t anymore,” said Lisa Bielamowicz, co-founder of consultancy Gist Healthcare.

Many patients, on the other hand, are in no rush. “They’re waiting and watching rather than pulling the trigger and going to see the doctor like they would have in the past,” Bielamowicz said.

The calculation for the health-care industry is different than for many other service businesses resuming operations. A hospital procedure or even a check-up is more intimate than a meal out.

For procedures that require in-patient rehab stints for recovery, the havoc Covid-19 has brought to nursing homes adds another layer of concern. “Those places seem like deathtraps now, so it’s much harder to bring back those patients because you need to find an alternative way for them to rehab,” Bielamowicz said.

And the biggest consumers of health care are the elderly and the chronically ill, the very people Covid-19 most threatens. “From personal discussions with my patients, the older and more co-morbidities that any individual has, the more nervous they are about returning,” said Shauna Gulley, chief clinical officer at Centura Health, which has hospitals in Colorado and Kansas.

Patients with serious ongoing needs like cancer treatment or emergencies like heart attacks and strokes have continued to get care. And many medical problems resolve on their own. The decline in those visits – for a migraine headache, for example – reduces providers’ revenue but may not harm patients in the long-term.

While people often go to the emergency room for needs better treated in other settings, now the concern is the opposite: That true medical emergencies will be neglected.

Ascension, the nation’s largest Catholic hospital chain, has purchased billboards that say “Don’t delay ER care.” On hospital websites and social media posts, Tenet facilities reminded patients that “Emergencies Can’t wait. We’re Open & Safe.”

Deferred Care

Doctors fear that some patients will defer needed care too long, allowing progressive conditions to deteriorate. Clinicians at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, have seen patients arrive sicker because they didn’t come earlier, said Ken Gibbs, the hospital’s CEO.

“There are unmet needs, I think that’s clear,” he said. “And I think the data on that will emerge, but it will take time.”

Maimonides treated 471 Covid patients at the peak on April 9, Gibbs said, and still had about 100 in late May. The hospital has applied for a waiver from New York State to resume elective surgeries, which are still on hold in New York City.

Some hospitals are preparing for a lasting dent in their revenue. For years, health economists have pointed to waste in the health-care system, with the estimated cost of unnecessary treatments in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Covid-19 may demonstrate that patients are willing to forego some of that care or opt for more conservative treatment.

People who had delayed back surgeries, for example, may now decide that doing physical therapy at home is good enough, said Marvin O’Quinn, president and chief operating officer at CommonSpirit Health, a large Catholic hospital system.

“We’ve all talked about too much intervention in health care in the past,” he said. “I think we’ll see a new normal in terms of what patients want to do and what doctors want to do, and we will have to adjust to that.”