On the morning of 13 July, more than 20 COVID-19 experts from across the U.S. government assembled in a conference room at the Department of Health and Human Services, steps from the Capitol. The group conferred on how best to gather key data on available beds and supplies of medicine and protective gear from thousands of hospitals. Around the table, masks concealed their expressions, but with COVID-19 cases surging out of control in some parts of the country, their grave mood was unmistakable, say two people who were in the room.
Irum Zaidi, a top aide to White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, chaired the meeting. Zaidi lifted her mask slightly to be heard and delivered a fait accompli: Birx, who was not present, had pulled the plug on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) system for collecting hospital data and turned much of the responsibility over to a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc., a hospital data management company. The reason: CDC had not met Birx’s demand that hospitals report 100% of their COVID-19 data every day.
According to two officials in the meeting, one CDC staffer left and immediately began to sob, saying, “I refuse to do this. I cannot work with people like this. It is so toxic.” That person soon resigned from the pandemic data team, sources say.
Other CDC staffers considered the decision arbitrary and destructive. “Anyone who knows the data supply chain in the U.S. knows [getting all the data daily] is impossible” during a pandemic, says one high-level expert at CDC. And they considered Birx’s imperative unnecessary because staffers with decades of experience could confidently estimate missing numbers from partial data.
“Why are they not listening to us?” a CDC official at the meeting recalls thinking. Several CDC staffers predicted the new data system would fail, with ominous implications. “Birx has been on a monthslong rampage against our data,” one texted to a colleague shortly afterward. “Good f—ing luck getting the hospitals to clean up their data and update daily.”
When Birx, a physician with a background in HIV/AIDS research, was named coordinator of the task force in February, she was widely praised as a tough, indefatigable manager and a voice of data-driven reason. But some of her actions have undermined the effectiveness of the world’s preeminent public health agency, according to a Science investigation. Interviews with nine current CDC employees, several of them senior agency leaders, and 20 former agency leaders and public health experts—as well as a review of more than 100 official emails, memos, and other documents—suggest Birx’s hospital data takeover fits a pattern in which she opposed CDC guidance, sometimes promoting President Donald Trump’s policies or views against scientific consensus. [Continue reading…]