The Department of Health and Human Services released a comprehensive new report on the state of the U.S. Covid-19 outbreak on Friday, releasing data previously only available to government employees.
The new “Community Profile Report” uses data collected by various agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the HHS Protection System to show the severity of the outbreak in different states and even counties. The first report shows that 35 states are “red,” indicating a major outbreak.
The report also names “selected high-exposure areas” where the number of new cases is increasing rapidly along with the percentage of positive tests. For example, Nashville, Tennessee, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Somerset, Pennsylvania are high-pollution areas in the first report.
The report also identifies “Rapid Riser Counties” and displays several heatmaps that contain various statistics that are used to determine how bad the local outbreak is in counties across the country. It records, among other things, the death rates, the percentage of positive tests and hospital admissions in Covid.
It is the most comprehensive picture of the US outbreak released by the federal government about nine months after the virus spread across the country. It is a reminder that such data was withheld from the public for months while it was distributed among federal and some state officials.
Jose Arrieta, who served as the chief information officer for HHS when the government launched HHS Protect, the agency’s Covid-19 hospital data warehouse, said the new report was “certainly a step in the right direction” toward transparency. Arrieta resigned in August.
“A number of agency staff, including myself when I was there, pushed for transparency,” he said in a telephone interview on Friday. “I appreciate the fact that the data is being shared.”
Dr. Janis Orlowski, Chief Health Care Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, is a member of the working group for White House Health Advisor Dr. Deborah Birx, on improving HHS protection. She said she and other members had been pushing for more data to be released over the past few weeks.
“We pushed for transparency, transparency, transparency … and they are doing a good job,” she said. “I like that it’s transparent and that epidemiologists and other people can look at it and say that’s fine, but it would really be better if we knew X, Y or Z.”
HHS spokeswoman Katie McKeogh said in a statement to CNBC that at least some of the data is in one form or another in scattered reports, but this new report brings it all together.
“As you know, there are different reporting processes at the local, state and state levels, and it has taken time and effort to build consistency between these systems to present the data as you see it today,” she said in a statement opposite CNBC. “This report has been extremely valuable to the federal response and we hope it will be helpful to state and local health departments, hospitals, businesses and the public as well.”
Much of the data in the report has been distributed to governors and state officials by the White House coronavirus task force to guide local Covid-19 strategy. Many of the reports, which in public statements often paint a worse picture of the outbreak than federal officials, were received from reporters.
The new public reports are a major step towards transparency in a federal response that is largely characterized by its opaque data collection.
“We hope that making this data public will help Americans make personal choices to slow the spread,” a group of federal officials who campaigned for the report said in a statement titled “Our data is yours Data”. The group includes Heather Strosnider, Co-Head of Integrated Surveillance at CDC, Kelly Bennett, Co-Head of Integrated Surveillance in the Assistant Secretary’s Office for Preparedness and Response, Amy Gleason of US Digital Service and Kevin Duvall, Assistant Head of Data Officer at HHS .
“HHS believes in the power of open data and transparency,” they wrote. “Publicly publishing the reports that our own response teams use and using the information by others outside of the federal response will only make the data better.”
A federal conflict over data transparency began this summer when the CDC’s data infrastructure proved inadequate to meet the requirements of the Covid pandemic. For example, federal officials needed daily data on the number of Covid patients in each hospital in order to be able to make potentially life-saving decisions about the allocation of scarce resources.
Instead of working on a quick overhaul of the CDC system, HHS rolled out a new data collection system called HHS Protect this summer with the help of federal companies, including Palantir. While many in the public health sector recognized the limitations of the CDC’s data collection system, some saw it as a move by the Trump administration to phase out the CDC amid a crisis.
Orlowski said the detail of the new public report is a demonstration of what HHS Protect is capable of and a testament to the progress the U.S. has made in collecting public health data during the pandemic.
“Never waste a crisis,” said Orlowski. “As long as we don’t increase the burden on the hospital, I believe we must continue to do so.”