CDC to regain control of US hospital data after seizure of Trump-era chaos
In December, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will finally regain control of national hospital data on COVID-19, which the agency abruptly lost at the start of the pandemic to an inexperienced private company with ties to then-President Donald Trump.
As SARS-CoV-2 raged on in the summer of 2020, the Trump administration was busy sabotaging the former public health agency. The administration’s interference was to strip the CDC of its power to collect critical data on COVID-19 patients and pandemic resources at hospitals nationwide.
According to multiple investigative reports at the time, Deborah Birx, then coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, was frustrated with the CDC’s slow and somewhat messy process to collect and put away the data submitted by thousands. of hospitals. The data included statistics on admissions, patient demographics, bed availability, ventilator use, discharges and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.
In July 2020, the Trump administration abruptly ordered hospitals to stop reporting all that data to the CDC and instead submit it to a new database run by Pittsburgh-based software company TeleTracking Technologies. The little-known company had won a six-month, $10.2 million contract with the federal government, although it had no previous experience setting up such a data collection system. Prior to the award, the company had won only small contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs for software that tracked patient status. The $10.2 million pandemic-era grant was more than twenty times larger than all of the company’s previous government grants combined.
The move quickly sparked questions and concerns among journalists and lawmakers. An investigation by NPR detailed the irregularities in how TeleTracking won the contract. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services initially said it was a non-tender contract – meaning the companies did not provide competing proposals to do the work – to go back and say there was competition. The ministry clarified that the contract was won through a low-stakes competitive process called “extended agency announcement”, which is a process typically used for innovative research, not for building a base. of data.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for TeleTracking co-CEO Michael Zamagias told NPR the company won the contract after HHS contacted him directly by phone. NPR also noted that Zamagias was a longtime Republican donor who was previously in the real estate business. In particular, he had personal ties to a Manhattan-based real estate finance company, Cooper-Horowitz, which worked extensively with the Trump Organization. Neal Cooper, whose father was a partner in the business, was closely mentored by Zamagias. Cooper told NPR that “we’ve done tons of business with [Trump]billions of business dollars.”
End of an era
When Trump administration officials told the CDC that TeleTracking was taking over, staffers immediately knew the transfer would be a disaster, according to an investigative report from Science. A CDC staff member left the announcement meeting sobbing. Others were outraged. “Birx has been raging against our data for months,” a CDC employee emailed a colleague shortly after the meeting. “Good fucking luck with hospitals cleaning up their data and updating it daily.”
CDC employees were right to be pessimistic. The transition to the new system was chaotic due to technical and administrative issues. Hospitals complained of not having enough time to prepare and facing frustrating resource-intensive technical issues at a time when they were overwhelmed with patients. The result has been unreliable data in the midst of a public health crisis.
“We’ve gone dark along with getting closer to our previous peak,” Dave Dillon, vice president of media and public relations for the Missouri Hospital Association, told Healthcare IT News at the time. “Moving from a known platform that all individuals could easily manipulate…has hurt our ability to have that situational awareness.”
Nevertheless, TeleTracking’s contract has been continually renewed since then, and the company has earned over $50 million. Now it is coming to an end. The last contract expires on December 31 and will not be renewed. Hospitals will resubmit their data to the CDC starting in mid-December, according to a leaked email seen by Bloomberg News.
“This change is both a surprise and a disappointment to us,” Christopher Johnson, president and co-CEO of TeleTracking told Bloomberg. Johnson added that the company would work to facilitate the transition.
The move follows current CDC Director Rochelle Walensky’s focus on modernizing CDC data collection. On August 1, the federal government released a final rule outlining new measures for the data collection system. Some hospitals called the return “disruptive,” Bloomberg noted, but it generally seems like a rare victory for the CDC, which has come under heavy criticism amid the pandemic.