Baker concerned about feds ending CDC’s coronavirus data role

Governor expresses worry about sudden shift by Trump administration

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER said he was “very concerned” about a sudden shift in federal rules that requires all coronavirus data be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has long managed such data gathering and sharing. 

In a new directive that took effect Wednesday, the Trump administration stripped control of coronavirus data from the CDC and ordered that daily reports on cases, hospitalization utilization, and other information now be sent to Health and Human Services. Officials at HHS said it will streamline data gathering and help the White House Coronavirus Task Force in allocating scarce supplies, but public health experts immediately expressed alarm over the switch and raised concern that the data gathering process could become politicized. 

Baker, a data-minded former health care executive, added his voice to those warnings when asked Thursday about the reporting change. 

“The CDC has been the sort of source of truth, for lack of a better word, around what’s going on with regard to a lot of these issues for a long time, and I think many of us believe that that is in fact where that data should be gathered,” he said at a State House press briefing. “We should be chasing data based on protocols and rules and and definitions that have been part of the way the CDC’s done this forever, and I think as this virus has continued to grow around the country, it’s more important than ever that the CDC be able to produce what I would describe as a daily statement on truth with regard to hospitalizations, cases, ICU utilization, and all the rest. So I think a lot of us are very concerned about this.” 

The New York Times reported yesterday that, unlike the CDC database, the new Health and Human Services data repository is not open to researchers and the public. One outside health care leader who was part of a group that worked with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator, in developing the new reporting system, told the Times the administration has pledged to make the data public, or at least available to hospitals. 

Health care experts say there have been problems with the CDC’s reporting system, but that the solution should be to fix them within the agency.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The federal change, Baker said, removes data collection responsibility from “an actor who really understands their role and has been very good about making sure everybody’s playing with the same definitions in all 50 states, across all institutions.” What’s more, he said, “doing this bang-bang like this without a heck of a lot of process, when you’re talking about this many moving parts and this many data elements and all the rest, sets us up for a situation where it’s going to be very hard to understand what truth actually is.”

On other topics covered at the briefing:

  • Baker said wearing a mask remains the single most effective way to prevent spreading coronavirus, and said state residents were showing a high rate of compliance with emergency orders requiring masks in public settings. He said the state’s positive test rate for the virus continues to be about 2 percent, but he cautioned against complacency. “We have seen slightly higher averages in a number of communities around the Commonwealth where we also saw a drop in testing activity,” he said. That prompted the state to launch free testing sites last Friday in eight such communities. Baker said the state is monitoring results from those free testing sites “and will expand to other communities, if necessary.”
  • He announced that the state will begin distributing $20 million in additional federal CARES Act funding for food assistance, homelessness prevention, and aid to small businesses in smaller communities that don’t receive similar aid directly from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. 
  • On whether the state might extend the statewide eviction moratorium that expires on August 18, Baker said his administration has been involved in conversations with local officials, advocates, and members of the Legislature. “We recognize and understand that we’re going to need to make a decision on that soon,” he said.   
  • Asked whether his past opposition has changed to the Safe Communities Act, a measure that would limit local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities, Baker had a one-word answer: “No.” The bill was voted out favorably this week by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
  • Finally, Baker said he’d be willing to consider proposals to change the state flag, whose depiction of a Native American with a sword over his head has drawn criticism. “We’d be open to those conversations,” Baker said.