Here's the latest in our spiraling waking nightmare of having an incompetent, unhinged president in the White House when we could most use a real one to get us through the greatest health crisis in generations: The Trump administration has issued an order to hospitals to begin reporting their COVID-19 patient data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), bypassing the politically neutral Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Senator Kamala Harris and several of her colleagues first raised alarms in mid-May about Trump's attempts to misstate and distort data about the pandemic for his own political purposes. And now fears of gross distortions and misinformation are looking even likelier as the New York Times reports on a quiet order issued July 10 in a memo to hospitals instructing them to begin reporting all their COVID-19 data patient, hospital bed utilization, staffing, and PPE supply levels directly to HHS.
"This data will be used to inform decisions at the federal level, such as allocation of supplies, treatments, and other resources," the memo states. "We will no longer be sending out one-time requests for data to aid in the distribution of Remdesivir or any other treatments or supplies. This daily reporting is the only mechanism used for the distribution calculations, and the daily is needed daily to ensure accurate calculations."
Experts say that the federal systems for collecting health data on a national level are "antiquated at best," per the Times, and some hospital administrations are applauding the change because it relieves them of having to report to multiple federal agencies. And many media sources have been relying on a running dashboard established by Johns Hopkins University for real-time data on the pandemic, because it is frequently more timely and potentially more accurate than the CDC's own data.
Officials in the CDC, however, were reportedly shocked by the change, as their agency has long had the responsibility for this data collection. And public health experts argue that putting the data solely in the hands of a president's cabinet leaves open far too much room for distortion.
Separate concerns are being raised by four former directors of the CDC in a Washington Post opinion piece published Tuesday that focuses on Trump's repeated insistence on the reopening of schools regardless of local conditions — and the forced revision of the CDC's own guidelines schools by Trump himself last week.
The former directors write:
One of the many contributions the CDC provides our country is sound public health guidance that states and communities can adapt to their local context — expertise even more essential during a pandemic, when uncertainty is the norm. The four of us led the CDC over a period of more than 15 years, spanning Republican and Democratic administrations alike. We cannot recall over our collective tenure a single time when political pressure led to a change in the interpretation of scientific evidence.
Senator Harris and her colleagues called attention, before the latest surge in cases in multiple states, to the fact that Trump and his cohort seemed eager to re-classify some deaths that were COVID-related as not COVID-related.
"President Trump has publicly suggested that there are far fewer deaths than currently reported and reports indicate that administration officials asked Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials to exclude individuals from the official death count who were presumed positive or who may not have died as a direct result of contracting the virus," Harris and her Senate colleagues wrote at the time. They called on the CDC, HHS, and FEMA to coordinate and establish "clear, unambiguous guidelines led by science and data on how to correctly count COVID-19 mortalities," because otherwise, "inconsistent numbers and misinformation will impact government accountability, how resources will be allocated, and how we recover from this crisis."
It is obviously important to Trump not to have Biden be able to say that 150,000 — or 200,000, or 300,000 — Americans died on his watch, some as a direct result of his misdirection and inaction. In fact, we should all understand fully by now that Trump is far less concerned about any human life lost and allocating PPE than he is about being reelected and remaining popular to his base.
So the latest move to have data bypassing the CDC and going directly into the hands of his own political appointees should scare us all. And this sets us up for arguments over the allocation of equipment and financial resources when, for instance, a blue state that largely voted for Hillary Clinton — like California — needs help, and Trump decides to do what he always does and put politics first.