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Maine’s top epidemiologist said Thursday he is concerned about the rollout of a controversial new federal requirement that hospitals send their data on the coronavirus response straight to a database in Washington rather than first directing it to the state.
U.S. Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree also condemned the move, alongside a number of their Senate and House colleagues.
Before Wednesday, Maine hospitals were able to submit that data to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which would then send it to its federal counterparts, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.
But in a change that was announced Tuesday and took effect one day later, hospitals must now send the data — which measures things such as daily virus cases and available beds — to a portal maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
While the Trump administration has said the change will simplify the reporting process and make it easier to track the availability of critical supplies, the move has alarmed health experts, who think it could make it harder for the members of the public to access the information contained in that federal database, according to the New York Times.
At least some Maine health care providers share those concerns, according to Maine Public.
“The downside to using the DHS website and portal is it will create a lack of visibility and transparency into other systems and other states’ information,” John Alexander, the chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston, told the news broadcaster. “In our state we’ve been using that information all along to keep us well informed and, in some cases, ahead of issues before they got here.”
In a statement on Friday, Sen. King spoke out against the move, citing the need for more communication across the board, not less.
“During this unprecedented worldwide pandemic, the collection, coordination and communication of population health data is particularly critical,” said King. “I am concerned that changing the process at this point will not improve the prospects of addressing and tackling the coronavirus.”
Rep. Pingree echoed King’s concerns.
“Yesterday, our nation set a new daily COVID-19 case record for the eleventh time this month. Instead of working to slow the spread of the virus, the Trump administration has instead chosen to focus on hiding critical information from the public and cutting out the public health experts at the CDC at a time where reliable scientific data is literally a matter of life or death,” Pingree said, in a statement sent out Saturday morning.
During a Thursday news conference, Shah downplayed the trouble the change will create for the Maine CDC, saying the state still will independently collect and publicly report the same metrics on the spread of COVID-19 that it has been gathering throughout the pandemic. He also said it still will be able to access data from other states that’s collected by the federal government.
“This change will not affect the operations and conduct and the way we respond to the COVID-19 situation across the state,” Shah said.
But Shah added that the change has created new reporting burdens for Maine hospitals at a time when they’re critical to the state’s response to the ongoing health threat. As a result, the Maine CDC is working to restore the old system in which hospitals could report that data directly to the state so it could then be passed up to the feds.
“What we have heard is that this change for the hospitals presents a challenge,” Shah said. “Frankly, any change in any operational tempo in the midst of an emergency can be burdensome and disruptive. We understand that, and we acknowledge that. Maine CDC has but one goal in these situations: to stand with and support Maine hospitals who have been important allies for us since day one” of the pandemic response.
Shah also expressed frustration with the lack of input that states were able to provide on such a rushed change to the federal reporting process.
“It was announced and rolled out within 24 hours,” Shah said. “Those procedural points are important: both the consultation, as well as the rapid rollout. And we’re working with the federal government to make sure that when subsequent changes of this nature are announced, they brief states, get our input and make sure that input is reflected when they go live with this change.”