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Abrupt change in COVID reporting systems raises concerns

Providence Sacred Heart Hospital, shown April 26, is among the hospital affected by the change in reporting requirements.   (Libby Kamrowski)

Hospitals will no longer report COVID-19 data directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the Department of Health and Human Services abruptly announced this week that it was streamlining the nation’s data reporting systems.

On July 10, HHS published new guidance for hospitals to report data, and by July 15, hospitals were not allowed to submit data via the CDC anymore.

Previously, hospitals could report data through the CDC National Health Safety Network, in a specific COVID-19 module or through the TeleTracking system run by HHS. In some states, hospitals could simply report to their state, which would submit the information on their behalf. All data eventually pooled in the HHS Protect system.

For some hospitals, the five-day window meant having to change the system they reported COVID-19 cases, patient status, capacity and testing information nearly overnight.

“The main point is that they didn’t give them enough lead time to make that change,” said Jonathan Bennett, vice president of data analytics at the Washington State Hospital Association.

According to the CDC, 3,000 hospitals were submitting COVID-19 data through the CDC, while 1,100 hospitals were using the TeleTracking system. About 2,000 hospitals in 20 states report data through their states.

Hospitals submitting data through the CDC network were using systems they are acquainted with because this is how they report critical disease numbers and statistics to the CDC on a quarterly or annual basis, Bennett said. The new HHS system is completely separate from the CDC system.

Hospitals must report their COVID statistics in order to have access to federal supplies, including remdesivir, the antiviral drug being used to treat COVID-19.

Providence hospitals, which had been reporting COVID-19 statistics through the CDC, released a statement responding to the switch.

“The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) was created expressly for the purpose of identifying and controlling disease. We have partnered with them for decades and trust the data and analysis they produce,” Providence St. Joseph Health chief clinical officer Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips said in the statement. “We believe the CDC is best positioned to collect and aggregate hospital data at this critical moment in the crisis, when the United States is experiencing an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths. We will comply with the change in reporting, but we urge the administration to continue using the nationally trusted experts at the CDC to manage the data that will help us stop COVID.”

MultiCare hospitals, however, were reporting through the HHS tracking system as of April, so the announcement meant little change for them.

The streamlining of data, while useful, does not alleviate current data-entry requirements for Washington hospitals, which are currently still submitting COVID-19 data on a daily basis to both state and federal systems. Every hospital, including small independent and critical access hospitals, submits more than 30-question unique datasets to federal and then state databases for COVID-19 tracking every day.

“There are certain geographic areas in our state and around the country that have had only a few cases of COVID and are held to that same accountability,” Bennett said. “It’s a tough sell, especially if a hospital doesn’t have a ton of resources and they’re having to stretch real thin to make sure they’re collecting this information and passing it along.”

He said that there is an option for the state to submit hospital data on behalf of all hospitals in the state, and WSHA is advocating for the state to do this soon.

“We want to make sure we minimize the report burden. It doesn’t make sense for hospitals to report to the state and to the federal government,” Bennett said. “We want hospitals to focus on the communities they serve,” he added.

State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said Wednesday that he is concerned about the change in data reporting, and how the rapid change affected the system.

“I was not engaged, my colleagues were not engaged in this conversation with the federal government,” Wiesman said at a press briefing July 15. “And the speed with which this occurred is concerning in terms of transparency.”

Wiesman said he also believes the CDC is the appropriate agency to collect and analyze the data.

“The CDC is the federal agency that is appropriate for collecting and analyzing and distributing and interpreting these data with public health and health care organizations,” he added. “That’s the agency that has the responsibility for that, so from my end (and a lot of state health officials’ end), that’s very concerning.”

CDC leaders insist they will still have access to the data, and it will not affect their ability to analyze it.

“This has no effect on CDC’s ability to use this data and continue churning out the daily data, the MMWRs, and the guidance we publish,” read prepared remarks from CDC Director Robert Redfield.

Even still, some health officials and politicians are concerned that by removing the CDC as a direct receptor of data, it is being removed from the process.

“It’s part of a pattern, as well, to try to remove the experts, the scientists from these processes,” David Postman, chief of staff for Gov. Jay Inslee, told reporters July 15.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.