|A Navy corpsman administrating a COVID-19 nasal swab. Photo: U.S. Navy/Taylor DiMartino, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
WatchDog Opinion: Trump Data Grab Threatens To Blind Nation’s Health System
By Joseph A. Davis
Hide the evidence. That seems to be the essence of President Trump’s pandemic policy. Trump’s July move to take over collection of COVID-19 data from the Centers for Disease Control was a master stroke of concealing its failure to protect the public.
In other words, sideline the messenger.
The data about COVID-19 illness and death in the United States are telling a terrible story — a story the American people need to know and one the Trump administration doesn’t want them to hear.
By grabbing control over reporting and distribution of the data, the White House is able to distort and muffle the truth about what is happening.
Some journalists may not think of the COVID-19 pandemic as an environmental story. But it is. People have to think of the virus with every breath they take and every surface they touch. It has profoundly changed the physical and social space in which we live.
For the moment, COVID-19 has somewhat displaced climate change in the headlines. And it’s equally consequential. Much of the air pollution we breathe in can make the disease worse — and it has etched into stark relief the ethnic and economic disparities that define environmental injustice.
It has also underlined a deepening rejection of science by parts of the nation, which has been a keystone environmental story for decades.
The numbers were the story
The White House didn’t really announce the data grab. Journalists uncovered it.
We first heard it from Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times (may require subscription) on July 14. In essence, it took data from hospitals out of the hands of public health scientists at the CDC and put it in the hands of political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, and the White House.
The move came just as pandemic news was getting really bad: a mid-July surge in hospitalizations and deaths in Sunbelt states that had rushed to open up their economies early following Trump’s urging just a few weeks earlier.
To all appearances, the numbers and
the story were what the Trump
administration wanted to ‘disappear.’
And the numbers were the story in many ways. Cable networks were carrying them in a static sidebar panel that stayed on the screen. To all appearances, the numbers and the story were what the Trump administration wanted to “disappear.”
President Trump’s record on the coronavirus had been dubious.
When the first cases appeared in the United States he dismissed it, saying on Feb. 27, for example, “It’s going to disappear.” By April, it emerged that Trump had been warned (may require subscription) about pandemic risks quite early, and that he had dismissed the warnings. He consistently downplayed (may require subscription) the pandemic. After his federal effort to help supply critical equipment to the federal hospitals failed, he told the states that they were on their own (may require subscription).
Effort to ‘slow the testing down’
A key issue all along was testing — and the factual, numerical data that it produced.
Trump wanted low numbers: low case and death rates. Testing and contact-tracing had for a century been standard public health prescription for infectious disease control. During the early months, it became obvious that any federal efforts to lead the nation toward a stronger testing program (to the extent that they existed) were an abject failure.
Trump’s mantra during most of the year was the assertion that if there weren’t so many tests, there wouldn’t be so many cases of COVID-19 (as if a lack of pregnancy tests would prevent babies).
That one never got past the fact-checkers, who pointed to incidence going up regardless of testing. But Trump kept repeating it. At his June 20 rally in Tulsa, Trump even admitted that he had asked his staff to “slow the testing down.” He had secretly had a states-are-on-their-own policy for testing, too.
If at first the testing debacle had seemed to Trump apologists as a mere result of incompetence, it eventually became clear that the administration had sabotaged testing deliberately. When Congress gave Trump billions to beef up testing, he refused to spend it.
All the while he maintained the afternoon reality show of a “coronavirus task force” for TV, he had a semi-secret group under Jared Kushner apparently making the real decisions.
Katherine Eban reported in late July in the pages of Vanity Fair that the group had developed a national testing plan — but had abandoned it in April. The article quoted sources who said it was spiked because Kushner and associates saw the pandemic as something mostly plaguing blue states.
The alternative testing strategy (states are on their own) would allow the Trump camp to blame Democratic governors. The approach, political favoritism, had worked for Trump as states competed in the life-or-death struggle for critical equipment. (And ER nurses had died.)
To the Trump administration, the enemy wasn’t the pandemic. It was information about the pandemic that was.
Surprise hospital data grab
Up until this July the CDC, the nation’s main infectious disease control agency, had collected and maintained statistics on COVID-19 and most other infectious diseases.
It was part of a large and complex disease surveillance system, well-established, mandated by law, run by public health and data experts — and trusted and relied upon by public health officials at all levels of government (here’s background from CDC on data collection and reporting, and the legal, policy, ethical, regulatory and practical issues of public health surveillance, as well as its evolution and challenges).
Disease data had worked this way for decades. For COVID-19, hospitals reported their data directly to the CDC, which posted them fairly promptly on its National Healthcare Safety Network website.
Among other things, the CDC site kept track of how many COVID-19 patients each hospital was treating, and how many beds and ventilators it had available — key indicators of whether the pandemic was overwhelming the health care system in a particular area.
But now, as Stolberg reported July 14 in the New York Times, that would change. The White House and HHS told the CDC: The data would bypass CDC and be reported directly to a database in Washington controlled by HHS. And HHS would contract the job out.
The move raised a lot of concern: Over whether anybody outside the administration could get a direct look at the data. Over the transparency of the data itself. Over the integrity of the data. Over possible censorship and political spin.
‘We know the administration has been trying to
silence the CDC. Now it looks like the administration
might be trying to blind the CDC as well.’
— Gregory Koblentz, George Mason University
It was hardly the Trump administration’s first move to downplay the pandemic. “We know the administration has been trying to silence the CDC,” George Mason University biodefense expert Gregory Koblentz told the Associated Press. “Now it looks like the administration might be trying to blind the CDC as well.”
The ostensible reason for the data grab was to “streamline” and speed up the CDC reporting process. That seemed implausible given that hospitals and CDC got only one day’s notice of the switch to a system that barely existed yet.
Seemingly hinky contracts
First reports of the new data system were not sparkling. Rather than doing the job itself, HHS chose to contract the work out to two firms.
One of the two was a Pittsburgh-based firm called TeleTracking Technologies. The chairman and CEO of TeleTracking is Michael Zamagias. According to an investigation by NPR, Zamagias “had links to the New York real estate world — and in particular, a firm that financed billions of dollars in projects with the Trump Organization.”
The other company, Palantir Technologies, was co-founded by Peter Thiel. Thiel was also an early supporter of Donald Trump. Thiel gave $1.25 million (may require subscription) to the Trump campaign before the 2016 election. Palantir has a number of other federal data contracts and news of Palantir’s involvement in a new HHS COVID-19 data system actually emerged back in April.
The initial report of the NPR investigation of the TeleTracking contract said it was a no-bid contract, because it was listed as such in an HHS database. HHS later said this had been an error and NPR subsequently corrected its story to state there had been five other bidders. HHS declined to say who they were. NPR nonetheless kept a headline stating that there had been “irregularities” (other ones) in the contract.
By July 28, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had written a letter to TeleTracking seeking more information about how the contract was awarded. Clyburn is not only the chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, but he is also House Majority Whip. Clyburn and others had already written HHS objecting to the data grab.
Presto! Data vanishes
You might expect — when changing a major national data system in a single day with almost no advance notice to the people involved — there would be some glitches and hiccups.
But no! The plan “worked” perfectly: The data vanished from the web the very next day.
Seriously, though, the results of the HHS/Trump data grab were not a triumph of transparency, clarity and good government. No. There was an immediate outcry when the data disappeared from the CDC site.
Members of Congress, the National Governors Association, medical and health groups, former CDC heads (may require subscription), hospitals (may require subscription) and a varied slew of experts were complaining and protesting.
Among the first casualties was trust. Former CDC director Tom Frieden said the new system would leave health authorities “flying blind.”
Within days, HHS ordered CDC to restore to the web the data it was not allowed to collect and it did.
Almost two weeks after the changeover, NPR reported that “the new system is updated erratically and is rife with inconsistencies and errors.”
The “streamlining” hadn’t worked.
As mid-August approached, things had not gotten much better. That at least was the consensus of nearly three dozen current and former members of a top-tier HHS infection control advisory committee, expressed in a July 31 letter. The new system was placing an undue burden on hospitals, they said, and will have “serious consequences on data integrity.”
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.