New COVID-19 Hospital Data Protocol Raises Concerns

July 16, 2020
Gianna Melillo
Gianna Melillo

Gianna is an assistant editor of The American Journal of Managed Care® (AJMC®). She has been working on AJMC® since 2019 and has a BA in philosophy and journalism & professional writing from The College of New Jersey.

Following an announcement that hospitals are to bypass the CDC and send all coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)–related information to a central database, questions have been raised as to the future of COVID-19 data transparency and politicization.

Following an announcement that hospitals are to bypass the CDC and send all coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)—related information to a central database, questions have been raised as to the future of COVID-19 data transparency and politicization.

Starting July 15, daily hospital data including information on deaths, bed capacity, and mechanical ventilator utilization, are no longer to be submitted to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) site. Instead, the data are to be sent directly to TeleTracking, an HHS Protect system. In some states, hospitals will report data to state health departments, which will then submit the information to TeleTracking on their behalf.

HHS Protect was created in April and allows HHS to combine data from the NHSN, TeleTracking, and other public and private sources. In total, the system integrates 225 different datasets from over 2000 hospitals across the country.

Hospitals have been reporting their data to the NHSN since the beginning the outbreak, and some question whether the timing of the new reporting methodology is optimal, given the pandemic’s recent surge.

“It has been an administrative hassle and confusing to constantly be shifting gears on reporting while hospitals are on the front lines during a pandemic,” Carrie Williams, a spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association, told The New York Times.

However, in a call with reporters CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, stressed the change only functions to streamline data reporting and access for hospitals and healthcare professionals, stating “[data] access is the same today as it was yesterday.”

The new system allows for additional metrics to be reported, such as therapeutic developments or breakthroughs that may be administered at hospitals. Consolidation of already-reported data will help doctors determine which patients ought to receive new treatments as they become available, Redfield said.

Meanwhile, the NHSN will serve as the main data collection point for nursing homes and long-term care facilities throughout the country.

“No one is taking access or data away from the CDC,” Redfield stated, adding the change will have no effect on the CDC’s ability to use the data collected.

Under the new system, consolidated data sources will make it easier to pinpoint regional COVID-19 statistics based on zip codes. Currently, access to the deidentified data outside of the CDC, HHS, and federal response teams must be granted by HHS, although plans to grant access to elected officials are underway. State and local health departments will continue to have access to the information, as the agencies continue to explore the best way to make the data available to the public.

“Collecting and disseminating data as rapid as possible is our top priority, and the reason for the policy change,” Redfield said. “We have not changed the data collecting ecosystem, we’re merely streamlining data collection mechanisms for hospitals on the front lines.”

Both Redfield and José Arrieta, chief information officer of HHS, noted the switch did not come about as a response to any security breach. “The goal of HHS Protect has always been to provide confidentiality, integrity and availability of data,” while ensuring security, transparency data-sharing, and privacy, Arrieta said.

He continued to stress that is impossible to manipulate data with the system, citing authentication processes conducted by HHS and CDC on any individual who accesses HHS Protect.

“We have mechanisms in place to prevent ex-filtration of data,” Arrieta said, in addition to secure file transfer capabilities, and methods of tracking any data alternations that take place once outside of the facilities.