While the coronavirus pandemic continues to spiral out of control, the Trump administration’s public health agencies are busy fighting each other.
The Department of Health and Human Services got into an ugly blame game with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday over an unusual shakeup in how the government collects and presents data on COVID-19 hospitalizations.
The mudslinging began after the CDC website was scrubbed of a module displaying coronavirus patient loads and bed capacities at hospitals across the country.
At first, it wasn’t clear why the module had been removed, but the development prompted accusations over social media that the administration was engaging in a coverup, since the abrupt website shift came one day after it was announced that HHS would take over for the CDC in gathering data on coronavirus hospitalizations.
But a senior HHS official told the Daily News that the website switch was an act of sabotage by employees at the CDC.
“They took down the map themselves in a fit of pique in reaction to the new data collection system,” the HHS official said, speaking of the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations.
A CDC spokesman declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the hospitalization module on the CDC website came back online Thursday afternoon.
The HHS official said his agency made sure the module was restored.
“When we discovered that they had taken it down, we reached out and they have since put it back,” the official said.
Under the change announced Wednesday, a private company, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies, will gather COVID-19 hospitalization data and funnel it to HHS, which is run by Secretary Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical industry lobbyist hand-picked to that post by President Trump.
Azar’s agency will then make the data available to other federal agencies, including the CDC, under the new plan.
CDC Director Robert Redfield told reporters on a conference call that he’s fine with the shift and said it will “streamline” the reporting process.
But the switchup appears to have struck a nerve with current and former CDC officials.
Tom Frieden, a longtime infectious disease expert who served as CDC director under President Barack Obama, said his former agency’s hospitalization reporting system, known as the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), has been perfected over the past two decades.
He said cutting NHSN out of the picture raises “fundamental concerns” and worried the Trump administration is doing so to stifle transparency.
“Rather than strengthening the CDC public health data system to improve hospital reporting, the administration has handed data to an unproven, commercial entity, reporting to political appointees, not scientific experts,” Frieden told The News in a statement.
“What data will be collected, how, by whom, with what data standards, under what authority and mandate? What quality checks and privacy safeguards will be implemented? How will the institutions collecting the data be supported? How will the accuracy and completeness of data be assured? With whom will data be shared, and for what will it be used? These are all essential questions that require straight answers.”
Ian Sams, a former adviser to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), put it more bluntly in a tweet: “The coverup has begun.”
The data shakeup comes as Trump continues to downplay the severity of the pandemic, even though the virus is resurging in most parts of the country and forcing states to shut sectors of their economies back down after rushing to reopen.
Trump insists the new outbreaks are nothing to worry about and has sought to blame them on increased testing.
“We test more than anybody, by far. And when you test, you create cases,” he said at a White House press conference this week. “So we’ve created cases … We have all of these cases. So, you know, it’s a double-edged sword.”
Despite Trump’s misleading claims, COVID-19 hospitalizations are also skyrocketing across the country, meaning more people are getting severely sick.
Meanwhile, nearly 140,000 Americans have died from the virus so far.