Internal Documents Reveal COVID-19 Hospitalization Data The Government Keeps Hidden
Where are hospitals reaching capacity? Which metro areas are running out of beds? NPR has learned federal agencies collect and analyze this information in detail but don't share it with the public.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Over the summer, the United States was reporting a disturbing number of new coronavirus cases, forty to 45,000 cases per day. We remember that for perspective - forty to 45,000 per day - because as cases soar this fall, the U.S. yesterday reported 88,000 cases in a single day. Hospitals are filling up. And it would help public health officials to know which hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. A few federal officials know, but other officials don't. NPR has obtained an internal document from the federal government that shows the U.S. is gathering and analyzing daily hospital data but not sharing it with the public.
NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is with us now. Good morning.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is this document?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So the document we got is a 49-page slide deck. It's dated October 27. And it has a lot of charts and maps - not a lot of raw data, but it offers a glimpse into the kind of information the federal government is gathering and analyzing. There are graphs that show hospital trends, capacity in intensive care units, ventilator use and more. And it appears to be circulated every day to a fairly limited group of about 40, mostly at the staff at the Department of Health and Human Services. Only one member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force receives it directly, and that is Admiral Brett Giroir. And public health experts we talked with say that this data could be really helpful in the fight against this virus, but they can't get access to it.
INSKEEP: What do you learn from looking at the document?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, one key slide that stands out shows how hospitalizations are changing in metro areas. So you can see that this week, hospitals in metro Atlanta, Minneapolis and Baltimore were more than 80% full.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Another shows that specific hospitals in Tampa, Birmingham and New York had ICUs that were over 95% full this week. My reporting partner Pien Huang and I reviewed the documents with several data experts and epidemiologists, and many of them said there's more that could be done with the underlying data that HHS is collecting but not sharing.
INSKEEP: For example, what?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, one thing you could do is graph how fast hospitalizations are increasing. So if you run a hospital and it's been 75% full for weeks and you're managing your staff and it's all working but then you're 77% full, that might not be concerning. But if you've been 50% full and then, one day, you're 77% full, that could be really concerning. And it could mean you need more resources. Your community needs to change its public health mandates. So it's the same number, but it means something really different. And I talked about this with Melissa McPheeters, an epidemiologist and professor at Vanderbilt.
MELISSA MCPHEETERS: With this particular disease, it's like a race car. Once it starts accelerating, it's really hard to slow it down. You know, you may be able to stop on a dime up to, you know, 70 mph, but you can't stop on a dime at 100 mph.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So that's why you need to watch the acceleration. With detailed data from around the country, researchers could watch that, and they could see where the epidemic is going next. They don't have access to that data at the national level right now, even though it is being gathered by HHS.
INSKEEP: Having seen this document, though, does it really contain information that local or state officials could get no other way?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it is true that state and local health departments have, in a lot of places, come up with their own ways to gather and present this information. But it is uneven. And the other thing is that national data would show one thing that state dashboards can't, and that's a regional picture. For example, McPheeter says her team gets great data from the state health department, but Tennessee has eight bordering states.
MCPHEETERS: Hospitals in Tennessee serve patients who are from Arkansas and Mississippi and Kentucky and Georgia and vice versa. And so when we see hospitals that are particularly near those state borders having increases, one of the things we can't tell is, is that because hospitals in an adjacent state are full? What's going on there?
INSKEEP: Well, how has HHS responded, then, that it's damaging to not have this data public?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: An HHS spokesperson told NPR that, quote, "Our goal is to be as transparent as possible while still protecting privacy." But public health experts we spoke with said it doesn't seem like there's a reason why HHS couldn't release more of this data if it wanted to.
INSKEEP: Well, now at least one version of this data is public, thanks to NPR.
Selena Simons-Duffin, thanks so much.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
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