What happened: For several months in 2020, the federal government failed to adequately track vital COVID-19 data – e.g. cases, testing, deaths, and hospitalizations – and instead relied on non-governmental groups to fill in these data gaps.
Why it matters: Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) failed to collect robust and accurate data on the COVID-19 crisis, federal and state governments could not utilize the best available scientific data to effectively respond to the pandemic. One of the CDC’s primary duties is to “detect and respond to new and emerging health threats” and the agency has pledged to “base all its public decisions on the highest quality scientific data.” By failing to carry out this basic requirement during one of the worst public health crises in a century, the CDC and other federal agencies endangered the lives of thousands of people across the US.
Government actions in response to the pandemic were heavily based on COVID-19 case, testing, death, and hospitalization data; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) failed to properly collect, analyze, and make public these vital datasets for several months in 2020. For instance, in early May 2020, the CDC conflated the results of two different coronavirus tests – viral and antibody tests – thereby distorting the data on people who were currently sick with COVID-19 and inaccurately overrepresented the country’s ability to test for the novel coronavirus.
In the wake of this data gap, organizations like the Atlantic and Johns Hopkins University stepped in and created their own publicly available COVID-19 datasets. According to the Atlantic, which created the COVID Tracking Project, the project was carried out under the assumption that the government was already tracking vital metrics like the number of COVID-19 tests conducted and that the Atlantic’s efforts would prod the government into making those data publicly available. Instead, the federal government began relying on these non-governmental data collection efforts to guide their pandemic response. For instance, in April 2020, the White House reproduced one of the Atlantic’s charts on their website.
The lack of comprehensive governmental data on the COVID-19 crisis appeared to be well-known to federal officials. On March 13, 2020, a medical advisor at the Department of Veterans Affairs wrote to an email list of federal officials saying, “What CDC is not accounting for is that we have been flying blind for weeks with essentially no [testing].”
For months, the CDC and HHS did not publicly produce high quality data on the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, when HHS took over data collection on COVID-19 hospitalizations in July 2020, the initial rollout was incredibly turbulent and resulted in major errors in the data. Only in December 2020 and January 2021 did the CDC and HHS appear to rectify the situation and start publicly producing high quality data on COVID-19 cases, testing, hospitalizations and deaths.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and other serious health effects, required a strong government response based on the best available scientific information. To carry out this response effectively, accurate scientific data from the CDC and HHS is needed. By failing to provide robust COVID-19 data for nearly nine months, the CDC and HHS endangered hundreds of thousands of lives across the US.