The Trump administration mandated that hospitals no longer send their data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the public appears to have lost access to key data. Alexis Madrigal, a staff writer and co-founder of The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, joins James Hamblin and Katherine Wells on Social Distance to explain what happened and why it matters.
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Katherine Wells: We had a question from a listener that I wanted to share: WTF is going on with the CDC?
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, there has been a pretty active effort from the White House to control the information that’s going out from the federal government about the pandemic.
Wells: I mean, you founded the COVID Tracking Project in response to that.
Madrigal: Yeah, basically because of this problem. And now there is a new phase of this. Hospitalization data had been fed through the CDC-run system for quite some time, literally decades. And I’m sure that that system was creaky. And I’m sure that it was not purpose-built for this moment. I’m sure there were issues with that data system.
But it was a functional system that people knew about and knew how to use at these various hospitals all across the country. Health and Human Services, which is the umbrella organization that houses the CDC, created a new system routing around the CDC. And it may be fine. It’s just that the CDC, and particularly the data that the CDC was collecting in this case, was public and was out there. And you could see it and you could use this hospital and ICU-capacity data. In fact, some partners of ours in the COVID Tracking Project, called COVID Exit Strategy, were in fact using that exact data. And when this new HHS directive came down, that data blinked offline. That’s something that we’ve been extremely worried about at the federal level.
James Hamblin: Hospitalization capacity is the most important single thing to driving public policy about opening and closing. If you had to choose just one metric, that is the point where, at least in the U.S., places have finally decided to shut down when their ICUs are almost full.
Madrigal: Yeah, that’s my understanding of a lot of governors’ decision making.
Hamblin: Whether or not it should be that way, all the data is important. But if there were one that the public needed to know: Hey, if we don’t shut things down, you might get turned away from a hospital because our hospitals are full. That’s really important for the public to have.
Madrigal: Yeah, that’s a great point, Jim. I also think people interpret these moves about where the data flows and the pipelines in terms of taking data away from the CDC. My interpretation of what’s happening is it’s actually about controlling the release of that information, which is different. It has less to do with hamstringing the fight against the disease and more to do with controlling the public narrative about what’s happening. That’s why these numbers are crucial to have in one place.
For example, COVID Exit Strategy—which is a partnership between the former deputy CTO of the U.S. and public-health researchers—they were using it as one of their indicators of a state that’s having problems. Like you’re saying, of the indicators, [hospitalizations] is the one that indicates the problem has become very acute. To take that information out of the public realm, or even just make it more difficult to access, in the way that a lot of other data about this pandemic works, it’s out there … if you’re willing to organize 300 people to collect it every day.