“No one came out of our conversations believing that CDC was going to stop doing analysis,” said one administration official who was involved in plans for shifting the data-reporting responsibilities away from CDC. The official, who requested anonymity, said the 24-hour disappearance of the agency’s dashboards was an unwelcome surprise.
“All it did was feed into this narrative that we were cutting off the CDC when that’s not what happened at all,” the official said.
The flap over the missing CDC data is just the latest source of tension between the CDC and federal health officials that’s contributed to a fragmented response to the pandemic. CDC officials have complained they’ve been unusually sidelined during the crisis as President Donald Trump pushes for faster reopenings, while White House officials contend they’re being forced to work around the agency’s weak spots.
The health department took credit for restoring the CDC dashboards Thursday and said it was committed to transparency. “Going forward, HHS and CDC will deliver more powerful insights on the coronavirus, powered by HHS Protect,” said spokesperson Michael Caputo, referencing the new data-reporting system that relies on outside vendors who have received at least $35 million combined. The CDC did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Inside the health department, staff gave conflicting explanations for the agency’s decision to pull its dashboards offline. Three officials characterized it as a flash of frustration with HHS’ order to shift management of coronavirus data away from the CDC. One official said the agency took down the dashboards just to update the system but failed to notify HHS ahead of time.
But they acknowledged that the health department’s turf battles, which are now playing out in a very public way, are hampering the government’s response to a pandemic that has claimed about 140,000 lives in the U.S. and is still surging in many parts of the country.
Two CDC staffers also left a White House data committee this week after the decision was made to stop using the CDC’s system for coronavirus data collection. Two officials attributed the move to the agency’s frustration with White House decision-making, although an HHS spokesperson disputed that characterization. The spokesperson said the employees were recalled to CDC because they were specialists in the old data-collection system, and new CDC staffers with “appropriate expertise” will be detailed to the task force.
POLITICO spoke with 12 current and former administration officials, as well as hospital systems, IT experts and state officials involved in the coronavirus data-tracking process.
Within the administration, the move to shift data management away from CDC has been portrayed as a necessary, overdue fix. White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx and other senior officials had grown frustrated with data delays that they blamed on the CDC’s system, arguing that it was clunky and inflexible. Among their complaints was that the agency’s system hampered their ability to distribute remdesivir, one of the only approved treatments for Covid-19.
After discussions with the CDC across the spring about modernizing its existing system to perform coronavirus-related work, the administration instead contracted with a pair of outside vendors — TeleTracking and Palantir — that officials said were better suited to handle the evolving coronavirus response. An HHS spokesperson said it took three weeks to update the CDC system every time the federal government requested a new category of information from hospitals, compared to three days for the TeleTracking system.
Birx also played a central role in selecting Palantir to help run HHS’ new data system, said three people with knowledge of the decision. She had worked with the data firm, which is funded by Trump ally Peter Thiel, in her prior role with the U.S. international HIV relief program.