Where to get reliable COVID-19 data, now that the CDC doesn’t have it

Hospitals now have to report their data to another federal agency, which won't be making the information public.
face masks

Masks are just one tool against the pandemic — the other is data. Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

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Under the guise of streamlining data, the Trump administration has moved previously available COVID data on hospitalizations out of the public eye. Starting on Wednesday, all hospitals are under orders to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and instead report directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which will be compiling the data into a single database. But that database won’t be available to the public.

Since the uproar over this removal, the CDC has said it will put the existing data back online. But as of Friday morning, all that’s gone back up is hospitalization data through July 14. There’s also a note saying that, for current hospitalization information, people should refer to the order passed on July 13 mandating that reports go through HHS rather than CDC. At least for now, that seems to imply that the old hospitalization data will be left online, but anything collected after July 14 will be kept from the public.

Though no one in the administration has commented on what they’ll do with the data, the sudden change and the fact that the database will be private has made plenty of researchers and public health experts skeptical that any stats coming out of HHS will be accurate. When data is public, researchers and statisticians from outside the federal government can do their own analyses and compare it to other data sources to try to figure out how accurate the numbers are. With all the info in a privately held database, that transparency disappears. If the federal government says that cases are going down, and no one outside of the organization has access to the numbers, everyone just has to take them at their word—even if their analysis is misleading or their data collection methods are questionable. That’s why transparency is such a big deal: it enables the public to know when their own government might be misinterpreting, misrepresenting, or outright fabricating numbers.

It’s especially important in cases like this pandemic, where the White House has a vested interest in showing that coronavirus cases are decreasing and that people aren’t dying. Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, when it’s in any organization’s interest to have one particular outcome, we have to assume that they might lie or otherwise obscure the truth in order to achieve that goal. That’s why the HHS shouldn’t have complete control over COVID data.

Thankfully, some organizations have been working hard over the past few months to gather data from other sources, and are now well positioned to provide both media outlets and the public with reliable information despite the federal government’s changes. Perhaps the best one is the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering’s COVID-19 site. Though they list the CDC as a source, a Johns Hopkins University representative confirmed that the project hasn’t actually used that data since February. Instead, the dashboard largely relies on individual states’ databases to gather information about coronavirus cases within the US, as well as on the World Health Organization and other foreign organizations for international case data.

You, too, can get data on COVID cases directly from your state’s department of health website. There are also sources like The COVID Tracking Project, which gathers data from states rather than from the federal government.

Whenever you come across a source of data on coronavirus cases in the US, it will now be wise to check exactly where they’re getting that data from. Anything that HHS publishes should be treated with suspicion, at least for now, so make sure organizations and media outlets are using numbers sourced directly from state departments of health. Misinformation has been abundant in the last few months, and it seems we’re now going to have to be more vigilant than ever.