The CDC (Center for Disease Control), HHS (Health and Human Services), and White House are in agreement on the move to report COVID-19 data with one system, HHS Protect created by TeleTracking, instead of two. Margaret Valenti comments on the recent shift in information control surrounding COVID-19 data reporting in the U.S.
This week, the White House announced that they will no longer use the CDC’s COVID-19 reporting system, NHSN (National Healthcare Safety Network), and instead use only the one remaining reporting tool: HHS Protect. HHS Protect is a system created in April by TeleTracking, a private company. Whereas hospitals and states previously could report in one of two ways: either the CDC’s NHSN or the HHS’ HHS Protect system. Now, the HHS’ HHS Protect system will be the sole method for COVID-19 data recording, eliminating redundancy and potential differences in the two systems.
On the surface, the decision seems to reduce confusion and create a single platform for data collection and storage. This unprecedented move by the White House steers away from the tradition of having the CDC lead the way, for the U.S. and the world, in pandemic response and research. The Administration claims it wants to make the process easier and faster, however, there are still questions unanswered; why did the HHS contract with TeleTracking to create a new system instead of the CDC? Is this merely $10,200,000 worth of posturing? How much is this new system really going to help mitigate the pandemic and treat those infected? Should money be spent on new systems or finding a vaccine?
Experts and former CDC employees came out to express their concerns about transparency and the potential manipulation of data by the Trump administration. In a Washington Post article, former CDC employees wrote that Trump is the U.S. President who politicizes science, or completely ignores it, to an unprecedented degree. Trump has a bad history of making untrue, false, or scientifically inaccurate statements that mislead the public that directly contradicts public health experts; for example, he suggested ingesting disinfectant or directing heat into the body to protect the public from contracting COVID-19, and at his rally in Tulsa he suggested slowing down testing to lower the number of cases in the U.S.
Critics further note that the White House restricted the CDC and, as a result, the CDC did not provide daily briefings between March 13 and June 12. Even now, the White House Coronavirus Task Force leads the executive response and provides most of the information to the public about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC is the nation’s health protection agency fighting disease and supporting communities and citizens in doing the same. The CDC should be an apolitical institution, reporting directly to the HHS Secretary (Alex Azar), HHS Deputy Secretary (Eric Hargan), and Chief of Staff (Brian Harrison). However, the CDC Director is a Presidential appointment that requires no Senate approval. President Trump appointed the current director, Robert Redfield, in 2018. Still, with technically no affiliation on either side, the CDC has no strong allies within the government and is not under direct control of Congress or the Senate.
Many politicians vocalized their concerns about the elimination of the CDC’s NHSN system from the COVID-19 reporting process. Critics focus on why the Administration made the decision to eliminate the CDC’s system, and keep the HHS’ TeleTracking system. However, the CDC, the HHS, and the White House deny claims that the administration wants to push the CDC out of the reporting process to tightly control, suppress, or manipulate the incoming COVID-19 data.
Under the new system, states, hospitals, and other on the ground health care operations assisting in the pandemic can report the data into the system themselves, or report the data directly to HHS Protect, using a TeleTracking Technologies, Inc. system. TeleTracking is a private company based in Pittsburgh, PA. The company’s CEO and majority owner, Michael Zamagias, also owns a real estate business, Zamagias Properties.
Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show donations (Michael Zamagias and Michael G. Zamagias in Pittsburgh respectively) to Republican causes and candidates since 1987, the last donation made was in 2018 (maximum donation ever made was $2,700). None of his companies show up as main donors to the Trump campaign, and the FEC shows no records of individual donations to the Trump campaign or any known affiliates; he is likely not one of the top donors to the Trump campaign, or anyone Trump would go out of his way to help.
However, TeleTracking received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the government, loans which receive criticism for the allocation of funds to businesses like Zamagias’ while many people still cannot make rent or pay off mortgages and more lose their jobs every day. The Administration also gave TeleTracking a $10,200,000 non-compete contract, the first time the company ever received a significant government contract, that critics question. They maintain concerns that the non-compete does not address closing the gaps in COVID-19 reporting, which the CDC will try to focus on. However, the CDC, HHS, and White House all seem to be in agreement about the move and are in agreement that the HHS Protect and TeleTracking systems are more flexible and designed to better handle the COVID-19 data.
There is so far no statement from TeleTracking or Zamagias on the matter.
According to CDC director Robert Redfield, “in April, HHS leaders, with input from CDC, created a new system, called HHS Protect, that allows us to combine data through systems like NHSN, as well as other public and private sources. The data reported from hospitals that went into HHS Protect either came through the NHSN, directly to HHS Protect from the states, or through a system called TeleTracking. What we have now asked is that, going forward, states provide data from hospitals directly through the TeleTracking system or directly to the HHS Protect system. First, this reduces the reporting burden — it reduces confusion and duplication of reporting.”
Redfield further stated, “TeleTracking also provides rapid ways to update the type of data we are collecting — such as adding, for instance, input fields on what kind of treatments are being used. In order to meet this need for flexible data gathering, CDC agreed that we needed to remove NHSN from the collection process, in order to streamline reporting.”
HHS Chief Information Officer Jose Arrieta stated that “before HHS Protect, CDC NHSN received data regularly from 3,000 hospitals related to COVID-19. However, there are approximately 6,200 hospitals in the United States. Through Teletracking, HHS was able to start collecting additional data from 1,100 hospitals. HHS Protect collects data directly from 20 states and approximately 2,000 hospitals for [COVID-19] data. The additional capabilities provided by Protect and TeleTracking provided increased visibility rapidly . . . HHS has made the security and protection of the data involved a top priority . . . It was an incredibly rapid response, created by players across HHS and the federal government, to provide the capabilities we need. HHS Protect would not be possible without support from CDC.”
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed yesterday that the decision made sure Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator, received daily data to take action, and effectively provide and recommend the medical assistance, medications, and treatments necessary to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. According to McEnany, only 81% of hospitals submitted data through the CDC system and the HHS system, run by TeleTracking, proved to be more complete. “This is all about getting more data out there, not less data, and ensuring in particular that our doctors get that daily data”, she said at yesterday’s press briefing.
CDC Director Redfield concurs, “. . . whether collected by the CDC’s system, the third party vendor, or the states, the data ends up aggregated in the HHS Protect platform, where the CDC team and other federal response teams still have access to this information for their use in the response. No one is taking access or data away from CDC.”
It is likely that Trump had no idea who Zamagias and TeleTracking were until they came up as an alternative to the CDC’s system. While TeleTracking may have a better, more “streamline” system, experts agree that the CDC is a global authority in pandemic response and that is the organization which should be on the front lines of this process. It is clear that the Administration wants better results in the fight against COVID-19. More data and better data should help in that fight — no one can question that fact. What information HHS and the White House give to the public and who provides that information is also an important factor in the fight against this disease.
As of July 17, there are 141,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. Still, businesses and restaurants open up across the country, people complain about social distancing and wearing masks, and schools are on the verge of reopening across the country. As cases continue to rise, people need better information about what needs to be done to prevent the spread and stop this virus in its tracks. Further cases and deaths are preventable if we all know what to do and follow the guidance, which has to be consistent and definitive.
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