HHS' COVID Data Dashboard Open, but Still Questions Over Full Access

Alicia Ault

July 21, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The federal government has made public a fraction of the data it began requiring hospitals to provide to its new COVID-19 portal ― at least to those who are not verified ― days after it barred the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from collecting and reporting the information.

Many public health officials and epidemiologists have expressed concern that the change in reporting requirements could cause delays in response to the pandemic as hospitals learn the new system and that it could hinder state health departments and researchers from analyzing what's happening in their state, region, or nationally if they don't get access to all the data.

Jose Arrieta, the chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told reporters on a July 20 call that individuals who log on to the HHS Protect Coronavirus Data Hub — who are validated and authenticated ― will be able to see all the data that hospitals submit, even if it is missing elements requested by the agency.

Having the raw data means "they can do their own predictions, they can do their own modeling, so they can get an understanding of how their own communities are faring in the response," said Arrieta.

HHS Protect also collects supply chain data from government and industry; data from diagnostic labs regarding test results; testing locations; state policy actions; emergency department data on COVID-19 and influenza-like illness; and other information.

The general public, however, can only see the number of inpatient beds in each state, the number of all inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and the number of intensive care unit beds that are occupied. HHS Protect does not give data on how many ICU beds are occupied by patients with COVID-19. It is not clear whether those data are available to the verified users of the data system.

HHS has not made it clear who will be included among verified users aside from state health officials, CDC staff, and hospitals.

Backlash

Hospitals — and some state health departments on behalf of hospitals — had previously been reporting COVID-related data to the CDC's National Healthcare Safety Network. Some also had been reporting to HHS Protect, which became operational on April 10.

But on July 10, HHS quietly issued a guidance document that notified those state officials and hospitals that they should stop reporting to the CDC and should instead submit data through the new HHS Protect system beginning July 15.

There was a swift backlash to the announcement. Janet Hamilton, MPH, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, told Medscape Medical News that state health officials felt "totally blindsided by this and they had no time to work with their hospitals or prepare or do the things that we in public health really like to do."

Arrieta said that HHS was aware that the move had caused some angst. "We realize this is a change, and any time there is a change, any change, it obviously creates a little bit of tension, maybe a little bit of pain," he told reporters on July 20.

But he said the new system would be able to track data more efficiently and report it in real time. Arrieta said only 3000 of the nation's 6200 hospitals were using the CDC system, which left an information gap.

"We're very encouraged by the large number of hospitals we have reporting since this change was announced," he said. He noted that 4500 to 4700 hospitals were now reporting to HHS Protect.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland‒based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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