This deep dive explains why the U.S. public health data system couldn't handle COVID-19

The United States’ public health data systems are outdated, underfunded and can’t communicate with each other. These issues made it impossible for states to track COVID-19’s spread. During surges, many local health departments stopped contact tracking, according to a new investigation by Politico.

A deep dive into the flaws in public health surveillance reveals problems at almost every stage of the process. The COVID-19 test labs didn’t send data to the health department directly through electronic systems. Instead, they used faxes and emails. Health departments used different techniques to track outbreaks. They relied on manual entry programs that required tedious, manual entry. They were unable to access information about the cases in time to stop attacks.

These challenges were made worse by COVID-19 case spikes, as Politico’s investigation revealed.

Data systems in Alabama crashed due to an influx of cases. More than 1,300 Covid-19 lab reports in Vermont were received by fax, email, or snail mail during December 2020. They were not sent through the state’s electronic report system. During peak periods, Washington state labs could take up to 10 days to report Covid-19 results. Wyoming’s state health department had the task of “deduplicateing” thousands upon thousands of records each month to ensure that positive results were only counted once.

Because of delays at the state level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received inconsistent or delayed data. Because they were not receiving it from officials, the federal agency needed to create a program that would allow them to search the data sites of states for information.

One reason the U.S. was unable to stop the spread of COVID-19 was its inadequate surveillance systems. “Because the U.S. did not have the type of centralized intelligence necessary to identify, test, and execute rapid containment,” Charity Dean, former assistant director of California’s Department of Public Health, stated Politico.

Officials say that while the CARES Act may help modernize some systems, it is not sufficient. Officials aren’t satisfied with the current state of health departments. The delta surge is making it even more challenging to manage and fix.


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