When the federal government’s public health emergency (PHE) ended on May 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scaled back the amount of COVID-related data that it had required hospitals to collect and report during the previous 3 years. The CDC had to do this, an agency spokesman said in an interview, because “CDC’s authorizations to collect certain types of public health data” expired with the PHE.
The CDC insists that it will have enough data to keep up with the virus, which repeatedly defied scientists’ expectations during the course of the pandemic. But some experts have doubts about whether this will turn out to be the case.
While the COVID pandemic is subsiding and transitioning to an endemic phase, many things about the coronavirus are still not understood, noted Marisa Eisenberg, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
“COVID is here to stay, and it ebbs and flows but is staying at fairly consistent levels across the country,” she said in an interview. “Meanwhile, we haven’t established a regular seasonality for COVID that we see for most other respiratory illnesses. We’re still seeing pretty rapidly invading new waves of variants. With flu and other respiratory illnesses, you often see a particular variant in each season. There’s an established pattern. For COVID, that’s still shifting.”
Similarly, Sam Scarpino, PhD, a public health expert at Northeastern University, Boston, told the New York Times: “The CDC is shuffling COVID into the deck of infectious diseases that we’re satisfied living with. One thousand deaths a week is just unacceptable.”
William Schaffner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn., said in an interview that “how we deal with influenza is something of a template or a model for what the CDC is trying to get to with COVID.” It’s not practical for physicians and hospitals to report every flu case, and the same is now true for COVID. However, “we’re still asking for data on people who are hospitalized with COVID to be reported. That will give us a measure of the major public health impact.”
Dr. Eisenberg doesn’t fully subscribe to this notion. “COVID and influenza are both respiratory illnesses, and our initial pandemic response was based on playbooks that we’d built for potential flu pandemics. But COVID is not the flu. We still have to grapple with the fact that it’s killing a lot more people than the flu does. So maybe it’s a template, but not a perfect one.”
What data is being deleted
The CDC is now requiring hospitals to submit COVID-related data weekly, rather than daily, as it previously had. In addition, the agency has cut the number of data elements that hospitals must report from 62 to 44. Among the data fields that are now optional for hospitals to report are the numbers of hospitalized children with suspected or lab-confirmed COVID; hospitalized and ventilated COVID patients; adults in the ICU with suspected or lab-confirmed COVID; adult and pediatric admissions with suspected COVID; COVID-related emergency department visits; and inpatients with hospital-acquired COVID.