Former CDC directors: Coordinating our nation’s health data will save lives

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As the SARS-CoV-2 surge recedes, we must apply the lessons we have learned during this pandemic to improve our response to the next health emergency. One of the biggest hurdles has been the lack of health data needed to track the pandemic and assess its impact on the complex healthcare and public health ecosystem in the United States. This lack of timely and standardized data has hampered our ability to respond quickly and effectively to the pandemic.

For too long, we have neglected our nation’s public health data infrastructure, much of which is aging, outdated, and insufficient to meet our needs. We need to modernize our entire approach to data, from collecting and reporting it, to stewardship and management, to how we share it between public health agencies and health systems so that we had the information we need to protect health and save lives.

During our tenure as directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a quarter of a century, each of us has recognized the need for more accurate, timely and complete data and each of us has made progress towards this goal. But progress has been limited due to both lack of funds and lack of legal authority.

As Congress considers the Preparedness and Response to Existing Viruses, New Emerging Threats, and Pandemics Act (PREVENT Pandemics Act), we urge lawmakers to include the specific authorities needed to standardize and coordinate public health data between the courts. This is essential for managing health threats in local communities as well as providing local, state, and federal policy makers with accurate and timely information to inform policy directions and decisions to protect Americans.

Early in the pandemic, key local data such as hospital capacity was inaccessible to the CDC, complicating the agency’s ability to assess health impacts and lead our nation’s response. The declaration of a public health emergency temporarily improved the situation by giving the Department of Health and Human Services the power to require the reporting of essential data to guide the response to the pandemic.

However, once the public health emergency declaration is lifted, these federal authorities will disappear, along with critical data to track deadly emerging infectious diseases and new COVID outbreaks. Without specific congressional authority, the CDC lacks the legal ability to standardize data.

The National Weather Service relies on a decentralized network of satellites, radar sites and local data to model and predict severe weather events. Their authority to do so does not activate once a storm begins. Storm trackers are always on the lookout with coordinated streams of real-time data that is consolidated, analyzed and shared publicly, enabling them to alert communities and save lives. In contrast, the CDC has had to rely on uncoordinated data agreements because the agency lacks the legal authority to routinely ensure public health reporting before a health threat occurs. We wouldn’t try to predict severe weather like this, so why are we trying to predict the spread of deadly diseases this way?

We urge the Senate HELP Committee tasked with drafting the bipartisan PREVENT Pandemics Act to include language to provide the necessary authorities so we are not at risk of flying blind as health threats emerge.

This is an issue that goes beyond COVID. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the public health emergencies of the past two decades, it’s the importance of having robust day-to-day systems that can be expanded in an emergency, and that includes a reliable flow of reliable public health data. Starting new data systems in a crisis is a recipe for failure.

Of course, any new authority must maintain the strong privacy protections already in place for public health data — and safeguards to give Congress the appropriate oversight. Likewise, this data should be simultaneously accessible to public health partners at local and state levels.

We must be clear-headed about fixing a system that has been underfunded for decades. It will take years, resources, and improved authorities — with accountability and transparency — for the United States to have the modern, secure public health information network needed to protect Americans. Empowering the CDC now to lead data coordination efforts will kick-start the longer-term rebuilding and modernization of our public health data infrastructure. As the pandemic has proven, the lives of Americans depend on how quickly and to what extent we can achieve this goal.

To M friden is President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was director of the CDC from 2009 to 2017.

Julie Gerberding is director of patents and executive vice president at Merck and incoming CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). She was director of the CDC from 2002 to 2009.

Jeffrey Koplan is Professor of Medicine and Global Health at Emory University. He was director of the CDC from 1998 to 2002.

William L. Roper is a professor of medicine and public health at the University of North Carolina. He was director of the CDC from 1990 to 1993.

David Satcher is Founding Director and Senior Advisor to the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. He was director of the CDC from 1993 to 1998.

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