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When the federal government’s Public Health Emergency (PHE) ended on May 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scaled back the amount of COVID-related data that it had required hospitals to collect and report during the previous 3 years. The CDC had to do this, an agency spokesman told Medscape Medical News, because “CDC’s authorizations to collect certain types of public health data” expired with the PHE.

The question that arises from this policy change is whether the CDC will now have sufficient information on the evolution and spread of COVID to inform public health decisions in a timely manner. The CDC insists that it will have enough data to keep up with the wily virus, which repeatedly defied scientists’ expectations during the course of the pandemic. But some experts have doubts about whether this will turn out to be the case.

While the COVID pandemic is subsiding and transitioning to an endemic phase, many things about the coronavirus are still not understood, noted Marisa Eisenberg, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“COVID is here to stay, and it ebbs and flows but is staying at fairly consistent levels across the country,” she said in a Medscape interview. “Meanwhile, we haven’t established a regular seasonality for COVID that we see for most other respiratory illnesses. We’re still seeing pretty rapidly invading new waves of variants. With flu and other respiratory illnesses, you often see a particular variant in each season. There’s an established pattern. For COVID, that’s still shifting.”

Similarly, Sam Scarpino, PhD, a public health expert at Northeastern University, told The New York Times, “The CDC is shuffling COVID into the deck of infectious diseases that we’re satisfied living with. One thousand deaths a week is just unacceptable.”

William Schaffner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Medscape that “how we deal with influenza is something of a template or a model for what the CDC is trying to get to with COVID.” It’s not practical for physicians and hospitals to report every flu case, he noted, and the same is now true for COVID. However, he said, “We’re still asking for data on people who are hospitalized with COVID to be reported. That will give us a measure of the major public health impact.”

Eisenberg doesn’t fully subscribe to this notion. “COVID and influenza are both respiratory illnesses, and our initial pandemic response was based on playbooks that we’d built for potential flu pandemics. But COVID is not the flu. We still have to grapple with the fact that it’s killing a lot more people than the flu does. So maybe it’s a template, but not a perfect one.”

What Data Is Being Deleted

CDC is now requiring hospitals to submit COVID-related data weekly, rather than daily, as it previously had. In addition, the agency has cut the number of data elements that hospitals must report from 62 to 44. Among the data fields that are now optional for hospitals to report are the numbers of hospitalized children with suspected or lab-confirmed COVID; hospitalized and ventilated COVID patients; adults in the ICU with suspected or lab-confirmed COVID; adult and pediatric admissions with suspected COVID; COVID-related emergency department visits; and inpatients with hospital-acquired COVID.

Although widely feared by healthcare workers and the public, hospital-acquired COVID has never been a major factor in the pandemic, Schaffner said. “So why ask for something that’s actually not so critical? Let’s keep the emphasis on rapid, accurate reporting of people who are hospitalized because of this disease.”

Akin Demehin, senior director for quality and patient safety policy for the American Hospital Association (AHA), agreed that the rate of hospital-acquired COVID cases “has been very low throughout the pandemic.” That was one reason why CDC made this measure optional, he suggested.

Eisenberg concurred with this view. “We worried about [hospital-acquired COVID] a lot, and then, because people were very careful, it wasn’t as much of a problem as we feared it would be.” But she added a note of caution: “Masking and other [preventive guidelines] are shifting in hospitals, so it will be interesting to see whether that affects things.”

CDC Justifies Its New Policy

To put the hospital data reporting changes in context, it’s important to know that CDC will no longer directly track community levels of COVID and the percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID, which until now were used to measure transmission rates. (Laboratories no longer have to report these test data, whether they are in hospitals or in the community.) To track death rates, CDC will rely on the National Vital Statistics System, which is accurate but lags other kinds of surveillance by 2 to 3 weeks, according to The New York Times.

In a recent MMWR report, CDC defended its new COVID surveillance system, saying, “Weekly COVID-19 hospital admission levels and the percentage of all COVID-19–associated deaths will be primary surveillance indicators. Emergency department visits and percentage of positive SARS-CoV-2 laboratory test results will help detect early changes in trends. Genomic surveillance will continue to help identify and monitor SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

Clarifying the latter point, CDC said that national genomic surveillance, along with wastewater surveillance, will continue to be used to estimate COVID variant proportions. Eisenberg stressed the importance of genomic surveillance at the hundreds of sites that CDC now maintains across the country. But currently, many of these sites are only monitoring the level of COVID, she said.

CDC also observed that COVID-19 hospital admission levels have been shown to be “concordant” with community levels of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Therefore, rates of COVID-associated admissions and the percentages of positive test results, COVID ED visits, and COVID deaths are “suitable and timely indicators of trends in COVID-19 activity and severity.”

Ready to Shift to Voluntary Reporting?

In a news release, AHA praised the “streamlining” of CDC requirements for data reporting but said that it hoped that mandatory reporting would be phased out as soon as possible.

The association noted that this would require action by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). CMS now enforces the CDC requirements with a “condition of participation” (COP) provision, by which noncompliant hospitals could be excluded from Medicare. CMS has extended this COP to April 30, 2024, although it could choose to ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services to terminate it earlier.

If mandatory reporting were repealed, would most hospitals still report on the key COVID metrics? Demehin noted that before CMS implemented its COP, hospitals reported COVID data voluntarily, “and the participation rate was well over 90%. So setting up a mechanism similar to that is something we’ve encouraged CMS to consider.”

Eisenberg is skeptical. While bigger hospitals with more resources might continue reporting voluntarily, she said, safety-net hospitals in underserved areas might not, because they are especially short staffed. “Then you have disparities in which hospitals will report.”

Vaccinations: The Sleeping Dragon

COVID continues to ravage the nation. According to the latest CDC statistics, there were 1109 deaths from COVID in the US last week, and total deaths have hit 1.13 million. There were 1333 new COVID-related hospital admissions, and 7261 people were in the hospital because of COVID.

Another eye-catching number: only 16.9% of the US population has received an updated COVID vaccine booster. Schaffner thinks that this is what we should really keep our eye on. While the combination of vaccinations and widespread SARS-CoV-2 infections has conferred herd immunity on most Americans, he said it’s temporary.

“Whether your immunity comes from the virus and recovery from disease or from the vaccines, that immunity will wane over time. Unless we keep our vaccination rate up, we may see more future cases. We’ll have to see how that works out. But I’m nervous about that, because people do appear to be nonchalant.”

Ken Terry is a healthcare journalist and author. His latest book is Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: A New Approach to Medicare for All.

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