This December, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will finally regain control of national COVID-19 hospital data—which the agency abruptly lost early in the pandemic to an inexperienced private company with ties to then-President Donald Trump.
As SARS-CoV-2 raged in the summer of 2020, the Trump administration was busy sabotaging the once-premier public health agency. The administration’s meddling included stripping the CDC of its power to collect critical data on COVID-19 patients and pandemic resources in hospitals around the country.
According to multiple investigative reports at the time, then-White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx was frustrated by the CDC’s slow and somewhat messy process of collecting and tidying the data submitted by thousands of hospitals. The data included stats on admissions, patient demographics, bed availability, ventilator use, discharges, and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.
In July 2020, the Trump administration abruptly directed hospitals to stop reporting all that data to the CDC and instead submit it to a new database run by the Pittsburgh-based software company TeleTracking Technologies. The little-known company had won a $10.2 million, six-month contract with the federal government, despite having no previous experience with setting up such a data-collection system. Before the award, the company had won only small contracts with the Department of Veteran Affairs for software that tracked the status of patients. The $10.2 million pandemic-era grant was over twenty times larger than all of the company’s previous government grants combined.
The move quickly drew questions and concern from journalists and lawmakers. An investigation by NPR detailed irregularities in how TeleTracking won the contract. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services initially said it was a no-bid contract—meaning that companies did not provide competing proposals to do the work—only to backpedal and say there was competition. The department clarified that the contract was won through a low-stakes competitive process called a “Broad Agency Announcement,” which is a process usually used for innovative research, not setting up a database.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for TeleTracking co-CEO Michael Zamagias told NPR that the company won the contract after the HHS reached out to it directly over the phone. NPR also noted that Zamagias was a long-time Republican donor who was previously in the real-estate business. Notably, he had personal ties to a Manhattan-based real estate financing company, Cooper-Horowitz, which worked extensively with the Trump Organization. Neal Cooper, whose father was a partner in the company, was closely mentored by Zamagias. Cooper told NPR that “we did tons of business with [Trump], billions of dollars of business.”
End of an era
When officials for the Trump administration delivered the news to the CDC that TeleTracking was taking over, staffers immediately knew that the transfer would be a disaster, according to an investigative report by Science. One CDC staff member left the announcement meeting to sob. Others were outraged. “Birx has been on a monthslong rampage against our data,” one CDC employee texted to a colleague shortly after the meeting. “Good fucking luck getting the hospitals to clean up their data and update daily.”
The CDC staffers were right to be pessimistic. The transition to the new system was chaotic due to technical and administrative problems. Hospitals complained that they didn’t have enough time to prepare and that they faced frustrating technical problems requiring intensive resources at a time when they were overwhelmed with patients. The result was unreliable data amid a public health crisis.
“We went dark at the same time we were getting close to what our previous peak was,” Dave Dillon, vice president of media and public relations for the Missouri Hospital Association, told Healthcare IT News at the time. “Moving from a known platform that all of the individuals could easily manipulate… has harmed our ability to have that situational awareness.”
Nevertheless, TeleTracking’s contract has been continually renewed since then, and the company has earned more than $50 million. Now, that’s coming to an end. The latest contract expires on December 31 and will not be renewed. Hospitals will once again submit their data to the CDC starting in mid-December, according to a leaked email seen by Bloomberg News.
“This change is both a surprise and a disappointment for us,” Christopher Johnson, TeleTracking’s president and co‑CEO told Bloomberg. Johnson added that the company will work to make the transition smooth.
The move follows emphasis by current CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to modernize the CDC’s data collection. On August 1, the federal government issued a final rule that outlined new measures for the data collection system. Some hospitals have called the switch back “disruptive,” Bloomberg noted, but it generally appears to be a rare win for the CDC, which has faced extensive criticism amid the pandemic.