Is HHS Hiding COVID-19 Hospitalization Data?

The U.S. government has been gathering data on which hospitals in which communities are reaching capacity amid the coronavirus pandemic – without sharing this information with the public, according to an investigation from NPR.

Hospitalization data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could help researchers, policy makers, and health leaders prevent future outbreaks, potentially saving lives. These reports include trends in ventilator usage and the number of inpatient and ICU beds occupied by patients with COVID-19.

“At this point, I think it’s reckless. It’s endangering people,” says Ryan Panchadsaram, co-founder of COVID Exit Strategy and a former data official in the Obama administration. “We’re now in the third wave, and I think our only way out is really open, transparent, and actionable information.”

Health experts say the quality of the data has been compromised by the shift in collection from the HHS to the CDC in July. Hospitals had to adjust to burdensome new reporting requirements and the information is no longer checked and analyzed by CDC epidemiologists and other experts.

An October 27 analysis obtained by NPR showed that ventilator use and ICU and inpatient bed capacity have increased 14 to 16% over the past month. Based on data from nearly 5,000 facilities, 24% of hospitals are using more than 80% of their ICU capacity. Hospitals in Tampa, Birmingham, and New York are over 95% ICU capacity.

More than 800 state government employees can access the daily hospitalization data collected by HHS, but only for their own state, which limits visibility into regional trends and separate states’ ability to work together. According to NPR, the daily trend documents circulated at HHS include this disclaimer: “This analysis depends on the data reported by hospitals. To the extent that the data is missing or inaccurate, this analysis will also reflect those issues.”

“When we see hospitals that are particularly near state borders having increases, one of the things we can’t tell is: Is that because hospitals in an adjacent state are full? What’s going on there? And that could be a really important piece of the picture,” said Melissa McPheeters, PhD, MPH, Director of the Center for Improving the Public’s Health Through Informatics at Vanderbilt University.

Source: NPR, October 30, 2020.