CDC has published 'tiny fraction' of COVID-19 data

The CDC has collected and withheld a trove of COVID-19 data on booster doses, hospitalizations and breakthrough infections, people familiar with the data told The New York Times in a Feb. 20 report. 

The agency for more than a year has collected hospitalization data broken down by age, race and vaccination status — something health officials have long asked for to better guide public health measures and identify highest risk populations. Of all the COVID-19-related data gathered two years into the pandemic, the agency has only published a tiny fraction of it, people familiar with the matter told the Times

The CDC in early February published data indicating younger people benefit less from booster doses than older people. Still, it left out hospitalization numbers from people aged 18-49. In the absence of booster data on this age group, the independent panel of experts federal health regulators rely on for advice on whether to authorize shots instead had to look to data from Israel to make their recommendations. 

And while the CDC had been collecting data on vaccines and had the ability to track breakthrough infections, it shifted its monitoring of breakthrough infections in May, focusing only on those that resulted in severe illness or death. Fear the data would be misinterpreted as vaccines being ineffective is among the reasons why the agency has been reluctant to share the full figures, Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson, said. 

As for the other streams of COVID-19 data, Ms. Nordlund said the CDC has been slow to release them "because basically, at the end of the day, it's not yet ready for prime time," adding the CDC's "priority when gathering data is to ensure that it's accurate and actionable." 

Some health officials were surprised to know such data even exists. 

"We have been begging for that sort of granularity of data for two years," said Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and part of the team behind the COVID Tracking Project, which compiled data through the first year of the pandemic. She told the Times fear of potential misuse or misinterpretation of data doesn't warrant withholding it. "We are at a much greater risk of misinterpreting the data with data vacuums, than sharing the data with proper science, communication, and caveats," Ms. Rivera said. 

On Feb. 4, the agency added wastewater surveillance data meant to spot emerging outbreaks and variants to its COVID-19 tracker website. Even though some states and localities had been sharing wastewater data with the CDC since the start of the pandemic, it took time for the agency to build the wastewater system and be able to present the data in a clear manner. 

The agency is now working to modernize data systems, as the pandemic exposed the systems were not ready to handle large volumes of data, Daniel Jernigan, MD, the CDC's deputy director for public health science and surveillance, told the Times

"We want better, faster data that can lead to decision making and actions at all levels of public health, that can help us eliminate the lag in data that has held us back," he said. 


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