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Idaho COVID-19 hospitalization data goes dark under Trump directive, at least for now

Coronavirus

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BOISE — The Trump administration issued a directive that will make it hard for Idaho to keep track of how many COVID-19 patients are hospitalized around the state and how many hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators are available.

“This new directive was issued abruptly and presents some significant challenges for Idaho to continue to monitor the number of hospitalizations in the state,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr said.

Health and Welfare’s most recent data showed 153 hospitalized in Idaho with COVID-19 on July 13.

“We’re in the process of reviewing the details of the new process to determine exactly how it will impact our ability to view and report the information on coronavirus.idaho.gov for the public to view,” she said, “but it will certainly have a short-term impact on our awareness of the number of people in hospitals, in the ICU and on ventilators.”

Health and Welfare, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both were publishing daily counts of Idaho hospital patients with known or suspected COVID-19. Those numbers ranged from lows in the teens and 20s in May, to record highs in the mid-100s in the past week.

The most recent data published by the CDC show that, between June 27 and July 10, Idaho had the nation’s sharpest increase in percent of ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Both agencies used the same hospital data repository — the National Healthcare Safety Network within the CDC. The NHSN was updated in real time, as hospitals entered their information throughout the day.

The numbers weren’t always perfectly accurate, for a few reasons. But the vast majority of Idaho hospitals participated in the NHSN, so Idaho’s numbers likely weren’t off by much.

Idaho’s hospitals and Health and Welfare also spent time updating numbers for prior days, when necessary, to make sure the records were as accurate as possible, according to Idaho’s deputy state epidemiologist.

The directive was issued quietly last Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services. It told hospitals to stop using the NHSN as of Wednesday. They were directed to start using a new, private system that flows to HHS. That system is managed by TeleTracking, a health data firm based in Pittsburgh, according to the New York Times.

“We were stunned,” Idaho State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn said Wednesday on Idaho Matters. “That data right now is our most valuable … indicator to show the public and decision-makers how severe this outbreak is getting in Idaho.”

Gov. Brad Little, for example, uses information such as the number of available ICU beds to make decisions about reopening.

Hospitals and the state received very little notice, she said. The change, especially during a surge in hospitalizations, made state public health officials “surprised and very disappointed,” Hahn said.

“To change right now when we really need that daily information is really upsetting for us,” she said, adding that other states likely feel the same.

“Officials say the change will streamline data gathering and assist the White House coronavirus task force in allocating scarce supplies like personal protective gear and remdesivir, the first drug shown to be effective against the virus,” the New York Times reported Tuesday. “But the Health and Human Services database that will receive new information is not open to the public, which could affect the work of scores of researchers, modelers and health officials who rely on C.D.C. data to make projections and crucial decisions.”

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