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Trump Administration Shifts Control of Coronavirus Data Away From CDC

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  • Starting July 15, hospitals are to redirect their COVID-19 reporting away from the Centers for Disease Control and to the Department of Human and Health Services instead.
  • The decision is billed as a way to “streamline” data collection across multiple government agencies.
  • However, there are fears that the data won’t be completely transparent and available to the public now that it’s controlled by a Trump administration official.

The Trump administration ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and send information about COVID-19 to a central database controlled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), starting July 15.

The move came as a shock to many health experts as the CDC has long been the agency where pandemic data has been submitted. However, the administration issued the policy change after discussions with hospitals and government task forces highlighted how cumbersome current data-submission processes are.

The government also hopes that by keeping the process streamlined, data will be more easily accessible to agencies other than just the CDC, including groups like the Coronavirus Task Force. That would allow the task force to better handle the pandemic and better allocate scarce resources like ventilators and remdesivir – a drug that is known to help reduce the recovery time of COVID-19.

The move to redirect which agency handles coronavirus information stemmed from a July 10 memo that laid out what Wednesday’s new rules would be. According to that HHS memo, back in late March, Vice-President Mike Pence sent a letter to hospitals across the U.S. asking them to send daily reports about the pandemic. It adds that since then, many government agencies have asked for similar information.

The administration claims that hospitals complained about how many different agencies were asking for information, adding that it was distracting administrators from actual hospital duties. Following these complaints, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, set up a call with hospital administrators and groups that represent hospitals to come up with a new plan.

Ultimately that call and other discussions led to the July 10 memo and Wednesday’s updates to how coronavirus data is collected.

Why Take the Data Away?

The move to switch COVID-19 data collection away from the semi-independent CDC and to the politically appointed HHS was a cause of concern for many. The largest complaint is that it’s moving the information away from experts who specialize in disease management and control.

Moving the information away from the experts has led to accusations that the administration is politicizing the science. Such an accusation was made on Tuesday in an open letter from the past heads of the CDC, both Democrat and Republican.

Dr. Nicole Lurie, former assistant secretary for preparedness and response during President Barack Obama’s administration, told The New York Times, “Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust,” adding, “It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like C.D.C. to do its basic job.”

This leads to another possible issue: that information won’t be made available. Like Dr. Lurie stated, there are fears the CDC and other groups will be blocked from the information. Jen Kates, Director of Global Health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation also raised concerns to The New York Times.

“Historically, C.D.C. has been the place where public health data has been sent, and this raises questions about not just access for researchers but access for reporters, access for the public to try to better understand what is happening with the outbreak,” Kates said.

“How will the data be protected? Will there be transparency, will there be access, and what is the role of the C.D.C. in understanding the data?”

Streamlining the Data

However, despite concerns there are experts who think the decision is a good idea.

The CDC’s system is called the National Healthcare Safety Network and it’s known for being cumbersome and slow. On top of that, the guidelines for what data and how to submit it constantly changes, frustrating hospital administrators who have to report the data over and over again to a ton of different agencies who have shifting guidelines.

The new system, which is managed by TeleTracking, a health data firm in Pittsburgh, is supposed to remove some of those redundancies, partly by using one standardized submission form. Additionally, If hospitals report to their state, and that state then sends the info to HHS, the hospital can get a waiver and skip sending it to HHS themselves. Officials within the administration, like Michael R. Caputo, the Health and Human Services spokesman, explained the problem like this: “Today, the C.D.C. still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data. America requires it in real time.”

Critics still point to one possible issue with this explanation, both systems use push data. Push data means both databases require hospitals, states, and agencies to actually input the data themselves and send it to the HHS. However, the July 10 memo does state that there are plans to automate the process, something the CDC has struggled to do for years.

Caputo tried to calm fears that the information was going to be locked away from the CDC and the public, saying, “The new, faster and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus, and the C.D.C., an operating division of H.H.S., will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response. They will simply no longer control it.”

He also went on to specifically say that the data would be available to the public. That information was also backed up by Dr. Birx, who gave assurances to hospital administrators back when this whole system was being set up that the info would be public.

Some doctors took the assurance at face value, like Dr. Janis Orlowski, who told The New York Times, “We are comfortable with [the switch] as long as they continue to work with us, as long as they continue to make the information public, and as long as we’re able to continue to advise them and look at the data.”

She also believes the switch is “a sincere effort to streamline and improve data collection.’’

However, as of Wednesday afternoon, there’s no data coming out at all. The New York Times reports, “the Health and Human Services database that will receive new information is not open to the public, which could affect the work of scores of researchers, modelers and health officials who rely on C.D.C. data to make projections and crucial decisions.”

There’s a key distinction there; the difference between the information being made public down the line, and having direct access to the database itself. The lack of data could be because the HHS system just went online as of July 15 and hospitals have yet to begin submitting their information.

It remains to be seen if HHS will beat the CDC timeline of “at least a week” to get the data about COVID-19 out, and whether or not it’ll be available to the public.

See What Others Are Saying: (New York Times) (CNN) (NBC News)

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Medical Workers Sign Letter Urging Spotify to Combat Misinformation, Citing Joe Rogan

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The letter accused Spotify of “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research.”


Doctors and Medical Professionals Sign Letter to Spotify

A group of 270 doctors, scientists, and other medical workers signed an open letter to Spotify this week urging the audio platform to implement a misinformation policy, specifically citing false claims made on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. 

Rogan has faced no shortage of backlash over the last year for promoting vaccine misinformation on his show, which airs exclusively on Spotify. Most recently, he invited Dr. Robert Malone on a Dec. 31 episode that has since been widely criticized by health experts. 

Dr. Malone was banned from Twitter for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. According to the medical experts who signed the letter, he “used the JRE platform to further promote numerous baseless claims, including several falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and an unfounded theory that societal leaders have ‘hypnotized’ the public.”

“Notably, Dr. Malone is one of two recent JRE guests who has compared pandemic policies to the Holocaust,” the letter continued. “These actions are not only objectionable and offensive, but also medically and culturally dangerous.”

Joe Rogan’s History of COVID-19 Misinformation

Rogan sparked swift criticism himself in the spring of 2021 when he discouraged young people from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. He also falsely equated mRNA vaccines to “gene therapy” and incorrectly stated that vaccines cause super mutations of the virus. He took ivermectin after testing positive for the virus in September, despite the fact that the drug is not approved as a treatment for COVID.

“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” the doctors and medical workers wrote. 

“We are calling on Spotify to take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform,” they continued. “With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

Rolling Stone was the first outlet to report on the letter from the medical professionals. Dr. Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, was among the signees. She told the magazine that Rogan is “a menace to public health.”

“These are fringe ideas not backed in science, and having it on a huge platform makes it seem there are two sides to this issue,” she said. “And there are really not.”

Spotify had not responded to the letter as of Thursday.

See what others are saying: (Rolling Stone) (Deadline) (Insider)

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Data Shows Omicron May be Peaking in the U.S.

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In some cities that were first hit by the surge, new cases are starting to flatten and decline.


New Cases Flattening

After weeks of recording-breaking cases driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, public health officials say that new COVID infections seem to be slowing in the parts of the country that were hit the hardest earlier on.

Following a more than twentyfold rise in December, cases in New York City have flattened out in recent days. 

New infections have even begun to fall slightly in some states, like Maryland and New Jersey. In Boston, the levels of COVID in wastewater — which has been a top indicator of case trends in the past — have dropped by nearly 40% since the first of the year.

Overall, federal data has shown a steep decline in COVID-related emergency room visits in the Northeast, and the rest of the country appears to be following a similar track.

Data from other countries signals the potential for a steep decline in cases following the swift and unprecedented surge.

According to figures from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, cases rose at an incredibly shocking rate for about a month but peaked quickly in mid-December. Since then, new infections have plummeted by around 70%.

In the U.K., which has typically been a map for how U.S. cases will trend, infections are also beginning to fall after peaking around New Year’s and then flattening for about a week.

Concerns Remain 

Despite these recent trends, experts say it is still too early to say if cases in the U.S. will decline as rapidly as they did in South Africa and the parts of the U.K. that were first hit. 

While new infections may seem to be peaking in the cities that saw the first surges, caseloads continue to climb in most parts of the country. 

Meanwhile, hospitals are overwhelmed and health resources are still strained because of the high volume of cases hitting all at once.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Wall Street Journal)

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COVID-Driven School Closures Top Record Highs, But Many Remain Open

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While some districts have implemented protective measures, many teachers say they fall short.


Schools Respond to Omicron Surge

U.S. COVID cases, driven by the omicron variant, are continuously topping new record highs, posing difficult questions for schools resuming after winter break.

According to Burbio, a data firm that tracks school closures, at least 5,409 public schools canceled classes or moved to remote learning by the end of last week due to COVID — more than triple the number at the end of December.

That is still only a fraction of the nation’s 130,000 schools, and many of the biggest school districts in the country are still insisting that students come into the classroom.

Los Angeles, which is home to the second-biggest district, is requiring that students at least test negative before they return to school this week.

In the biggest district of New York City, classes have already resumed following winter break. Although the city has said it will double random tests and send home more kits, students were not required to provide negative results.

Teachers Protest In-Person Learning

Teachers in other major districts have protested the local government’s decisions to stay open.

One of the most closely watched battles is in Chicago, where students on Monday missed their fourth consecutive day of school due to a feud between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D).

Last week, the union voted to return to remote learning in defiance of a city-wide order mandating they teach in-person, citing inadequate COVID-19 protections. Lightfoot claimed the conditions were fine and that students were safe, despite record surges, instead opting to cancel classes altogether while the fight plays out.

On Sunday, the union said it was “still far apart” from making any kind of agreement with public school officials after Lightfoot rejected their demands.

Lightfoot, for her part, has said she remains “hopeful” a deal could be reached, but she also stirred up the union by accusing teachers of staging an “illegal walkout” and claiming they “abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families.”

Meanwhile, teachers in other school districts have begun to emulate the tactics in Chicago.

On Friday, teachers in Oakland, California staged a “sick-out,” promoting 12 schools serving thousands of students to close.

See what others are saying: (The Chicago Tribune) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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