WASHINGTON — A $10.2 million “sole source” contract to run a centralized Covid-19 database for the Trump administration drew sharp criticism on Wednesday from congressional Democrats, who demanded that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be reinstated as the primary repository of coronavirus data.
The contract drew scant public attention when it was awarded in April to TeleTracking Technologies, a Pittsburgh company whose core business is helping hospitals manage the flow of patients. But it drew scrutiny after the administration ordered hospitals, beginning on Wednesday, to report coronavirus information, including bed availability, to the new database, housed at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, instead of to the C.D.C.
Two top federal health officials — Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, and José Arrieta, the chief information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services — defended the decision in a conference call with reporters, saying that the new database was necessary to expedite and streamline data, which is used to help the government make decisions about where to deploy personal protective gear or drugs like remdesivir.
Dr. Redfield said C.D.C. experts would still have access to the data. “This access is the same today as it was yesterday,” he said.
But the officials had no explanation for the TeleTracking contract, which was awarded on a sole-source basis, federal records show. Mr. Arrieta said he was not involved in the contract negotiations. The company did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Senate health panel, has been seeking an explanation for the contract, which she argues is duplicative because the C.D.C. already had its own data-gathering system, the National Healthcare Safety Network.
“C.D.C. has had a system in place for over a decade to track infection data, and hospitals and states know and trust this system,” Ms. Murray said Wednesday in a statement. “So it’s entirely unclear why the Trump administration has asked states and hospitals to upend their reporting systems in the middle of a pandemic — in 48 hours nonetheless — without a single explanation as to why this new system is better or necessary.”
Another top Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, told reporters in Hoboken that if the administration did not reverse itself and put the C.D.C. back in charge, “we will look at withholding funding until the administration changes course.”
The switch in reporting exposed deep flaws in the way the government collects health data, and the C.D.C. has been no stranger to criticism. Congress has long been asking the agency to modernize its data collection, and passed laws in 2006, 2013 and 2019 requiring a system that could collect data in near-real time.
The C.D.C. has yet to establish such a system, which would spare hospital employees from having to enter data manually. But the TeleTracking system also requires manual entry, said Dr. Lissy Hu, the chief executive of CarePort Health, a technology firm. She said the new arrangement made little sense.
“This whole thing is bizarre,” she said. “The White House is saying collecting real-time information is problematic, and I agree with that. But with TeleTracking, it’s still going to be manual entry, so how is that better than the current manual entry system?”
TeleTracking’s core business is helping hospitals manage bed space. But the Department of Health and Human Services had a bed-tracking system, called HAvBED, that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That system is no longer in use because states viewed the requirement to report bed space as burdensome and federal officials realized the data was “static, lagging” and thus of little use, said Dr. Dan Hanfling, an expert in emergency preparedness and a vice president at In-Q-Tel, a strategic investment firm.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 15, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
What’s the best material for a mask?
- Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
- A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
- The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
- The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
- Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
- A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
- If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
- If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
“This issue is not just about H.H.S. versus C.D.C. — it is that we have outdated data collection systems that aren’t automated, are burdensome on health care providers, and don’t give you real-time situational awareness,” Dr. Hanfling said.
Still, the administration’s decision to take control of hospital data away from the C.D.C. and centralize it in Washington drew an outcry from public health experts who worried that the data would be politicized or withheld from the public. Academics, modelers and state and local officials rely on the C.D.C. data to track the movement of the virus and make crucial decisions about when to reopen.
Addressing concerns about transparency, Mr. Arrieta said the Department of Health and Human Services was considering giving members of Congress access to the new database and was “exploring the best way” to make information from it available to the public, including to news organizations and academic researchers.
Dr. Redfield said he wanted to make data more “externally facing” and accessible to the public, so Americans could see “the current extent of the pandemic in different counties and in different ZIP codes.”
Chris Hamby contributed reporting.