The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) debuted its new COVID-19 dashboard on Monday, and the department’s data chief said it will provide even more data than the CDC’s old one did.
Called the Coronavirus Data Hub, the HHS dashboard replaces the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), to which states and hospitals had previously been submitting COVID-19 data such as intensive care unit capacity, ventilator use, personal protective equipment (PPE) levels, and staffing shortages. But in guidance to hospitals, updated July 10 and published with little fanfare, HHS ordered hospitals to stop submitting such data to the NHSN and instead submit it either to HHS or to their state health department, which would then submit it to HHS. The data would then be put on the dashboard via the department’s new HHS Protect data system.
The dashboard’s public-facing side allows users to see the overall number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. as well as the overall number of reported deaths. It also includes data on inpatient and ICU bed utilization.
Most healthcare groups were initially unhappy with the data switch. The move to cut CDC out of the loop is “troubling and, if implemented, will undermine our nation’s public health experts,” Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) President Thomas File Jr. said in a statement last Tuesday. “Placing medical data collection outside of the leadership of public health experts could severely weaken the quality and availability of data, add an additional burden to already overwhelmed hospitals and add a new challenge to the U.S. pandemic response.”
On Friday, IDSA and several dozen other healthcare organizations went further, writing a letter to White House coronavirus task force members Deborah Birx, MD; HHS Secretary Alex Azar; and Vice President Mike Pence, urging them to give control of the data back to the CDC. “Rather than investing in a new data collection mechanism and reporting infrastructure, we strongly urge the administration to provide funding to enhance data collection and strengthen the role of CDC to collect and report COVID-19 data by race and ethnicity, hospital and ICU capacity, total number of tests and percent positive, hospitalizations and deaths,” the letter said. “This critical function belongs with our nation’s top public health agency.”
Nevertheless, the administration is pressing ahead with the new system. On a conference call with reporters Monday, José Arrieta, HHS’s chief information officer, was upbeat, noting that the CDC used data from only 3,000 of the nation’s 6,200 hospitals to project COVID-19 trends, although the data they did get was 100% complete. “Our goal is to take a different approach,” he said. “We’re reporting on over 4,500 hospitals and if a hospital doesn’t submit a complete dataset, we’re [still] going to provide the data.”
He continued, “One of the things we’ve learned during the coronavirus response is that data is the single most important thing” needed in order to respond. As for any data received, “we make it 100% transparent to the hospitals and the states what was submitted.”
Arrieta acknowledged that the new system “is a pretty big change,” but added that with it, “individuals will have … access to the raw data so they can do their own predictions, their own modeling, and get an understanding of how their own communities are faring. We want to create a public discussion around the importance for data sharing and the importance for transparency. There are still gaps in those data elements that hospitals aren’t submitting; we want to encourage them to submit it. That’s one reason why we’re showing the missing elements.”
HHS plans to update the dashboard “regularly,” Arrieta said, although he didn’t indicate exactly how often that would be. He also addressed concerns regarding data integrity. “In the next couple of weeks, we’re going to post a time series record, so everyone can see what has actually happened with the data set,” Arrieta said. While government agencies such as the CDC will control who within their organization can access the HHS Protect data, “from the moment the data hits HHS Protect, we create a record of all the behaviors associated with that data set… who curated it, who parsed, how they parsed it. It’s a very powerful capability if somebody makes a mistake.”
One state, for example, “had an issue with some data they sent us, and we immediately looked at the time series and found that, in fact, they had submitted the information twice, and we were able to remedy it within one hour,” he said.
Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow