US’s new COVID-19 data system is concerning, but could be significant tool in fight against coronavirus

Following the recent news that the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be receiving data on COVID-19 hospitalizations from hospitals directly, bypassing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC);

Kasey Fu, Director of Epidemiology at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, offers her view on the potential implications of this change:

“As an epidemiologist who has been working on COVID-19 analysis and modelling since the outbreak started in January, this change in data collection process in the US is troubling. However, if the new system is able to improve data collection while maintaining transparency and access to data, it could be a significant tool in the fight against COVID-19. 

“The HHS announced the change as an effort to improve data collection, unification of data in one place and speed of data collection. However, the new system is untested and we do not know if it will result in such improvements. It may not capture data the same way, which can result in artificial changes to epidemiological trends. Since trending and modelling depend on consistent historical data, to change the source of information at such a crucial time in the pandemic may result in delay in reporting, skewed models and incorrect conclusions being drawn. Assuming that the system does deliver on its promises, it will still take time for hospitals to change over to it.

“The CDC system is not perfect and was slow in some aspects. For example, the US had cases as early as end of January, had over 400,00 cases by April, but even by the end of May, the CDC’s national publically available dataset did not have country-wide age-specific breakdown of confirmed cases. To determine age breakdown of cases required searching individual state COVID-19 databases.

“So far, the system change has not been well-received by the scientific community as many people see it as further politicizing COVID-19 response. HHS will need to demonstrate that it can both collect and disseminate high-quality data faster than current levels to gain the public’s trust. With daily confirmed new cases being reported at more than 50,000 a day in the US, we are at a critical time and need good, reliable data more than ever.”

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