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Health Officials Testify Before Congress On Pandemic Response

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Earlier this week, the U.S. passed a sobering milestone. COVID-19 has now killed more than 150,000 people here. That's a backdrop for today's testimony in Congress by members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. They faced questions about the availability of testing and the safety of vaccines. There were also questions about a story that NPR has been following closely - a controversial change in the way that crucial hospital data are collected. Here to talk about this is NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hi, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So let's start with a story that you've been following about how the government is monitoring hospital capacity and supplies, the job of keeping this data was taken away from the CDC in mid-July and given over to a private contractor and the Department of Health and Human Services. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, asked CDC Director Robert Redfield about that decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAXINE WATERS: Dr. Redfield, when did you first learn? When were you first told?

ROBERT REDFIELD: Again...

WATERS: When were you first notified?

REDFIELD: Again, as I mentioned, I wasn't involved in the decision.

WATERS: So you were never...

REDFIELD: I don't remember the exact date.

WATERS: Am I to understand...

REDFIELD: I don't remember the exact date.

SHAPIRO: Selena, what did we learn there?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well after the decision was made, there was an immediate outcry. And Redfield went on a call with reporters and sought to downplay the conflict, saying nothing is being taken away from CDC and indicating that CDC agreed that this was the right decision to, quote, "streamline" this process. But here in that exchange, you hear Redfield admit that he was not consulted on the decision. He was told about it at some point. And the whole thing happened really fast. The guidance from HHS was dated July 10, and it went into effect five days later. So it really looks like CDC was steamrolled here.

SHAPIRO: So you and our colleague Pien Huang have been reporting on this new system and whether or not it's better than what the CDC was doing. What have you learned?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So HHS is the parent federal agency here. CDC is part of HHS but it's seen as more science focused and less political. And what HHS argued was that CDC's process was too slow and not enough hospitals were reporting enough into it. And they said they could get 100% of hospitals to report to the new system. We're talking about crucial information like the availability of hospital beds, masks, other PPE and ventilators. So what we found in reviewing the data is that it's not faster. They're actually putting out public data estimates less frequently than CDC was. And it hasn't gotten 100% of hospitals to report. And there are also some strange numbers cropping up in the data that really don't make sense.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us some examples?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So for example, Rhode Island shows 124% of ICU beds are filled, which is, of course, not possible. And Rhode Island has very few COVID-19 cases. In Colorado, the state's dashboard number of hospitalized covered patients is different than the number that HHS shows, which is just confusing. And in Arizona, after the switch there were fewer COVID-19 patients in hospitals, but they were taking up a higher percentage of hospital beds in the state.

SHAPIRO: OK. So as you say, those numbers don't make any sense. How does HHS respond to this?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the agency is standing firm. It's - a spokesperson told us it's pleased with how the system is coming along and how the transition is going. They acknowledge they were having some difficulty with the new system, but, we're working fast to correct errors. But it's important to note that this isn't just about numbers being off. The stakes here are life and death. NPR talked to Ryan Panchadsaram about this. He co-founded the tracker covidexitstrategy.org. And here's what he said.

RYAN PANCHADSARAM: What's unfortunate about this situation is that this data missing and this data not being out in the public is really hampering our response. It's also providing really poor information to the public on the actions that they should be taking. And so, really, true lives are being, you know, put at risk here.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: As I mentioned, so far, HHS has resisted calls to reverse course here. We'll be keeping tabs on how the story develops.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thank you for the update.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.