25 Investigates: New federal requirements causing headaches for state COVID-19 data reporting

25 Investigates: New federal requirements causing headaches for state COVID-19 data reporting

BOSTON — Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders expressed frustration Friday over new requirements for hospitals reporting COVID-10 data to the federal government.

The changes stem from President Donald Trump’s decision last week to have hospital bypass the CDC and send coronavirus data only to federal Health and Human Services.

The move prompted democratic senators, including Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, to send a letter to the Coronavirus Task Force calling changes “confusing and harmful to hospital reporting requirements.”

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On Wednesday, those requirements went into effect.

“Yesterday, we experienced significant challenges in providing our public dashboard as a result of the hastily announced new federal reporting requirements that just went into effect,” said Sudders.

In Massachusetts, hospitals send the data to the Department of Public Health before it’s sent to the federal government.

Initially, hospitals reported 41 data sets. The new requirements added 50 new fields and states were given one week to make the changes. In addition, the feds changed definitions of things like what constitutes a suspected case of COVID-19 and when a hospital reaches surge capacity.

It led to what Sudders called “anomalies.”

25 Investigates has been examining irregularities with the state’s daily coronavirus numbers that surfaced this week.

For example, hospitalizations went from 19 on Wednesday to negative 181 on Thursday. Sudders said some of that drop could be attributed to new federal guidelines that narrow who qualifies as a COVID-19 hospitalization.

“So that narrows the number of cases to be reported, as well as two large hospital systems in Massachusetts actually did have a significant decrease in COVID hospitalizations, but we wanted to ensure when you see that significant drop, we wanted to make sure that that wasn’t like a data integrity area, but a real error, a real issue,” said Sudders.

That’s something the state continues to sort out with hospitals.

“All the hospitals have a call with the state later this afternoon. and then once again on Monday, just to go back over the questions so that there’s clarity on the questions because there is some newness to some of those questions” said Jack Bailey, a hospital administrator at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

Bailey says the daily phone calls with the state have been helpful in sorting out what data to send. He believes it won’t be long before things are running smoothly again.

The additional data hospitals are collecting also includes demographic information, including race of patients, something many researchers agree is an important component as we continue to study this pandemic.

25 Investigates reached out to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association about the latest U.S. HHS data reporting changes. The association issued us this written statement: “All Massachusetts acute care hospitals continue to report COVID-19 data to the federal government, working in close partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Hospitals across the country were given little time to adjust to the unnecessary and seismic changes put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which fundamentally shift both the volume of data and the platforms through which data is submitted. We are working with DPH to make sense of these new requirements and resolve any outstanding challenges as quickly as possible.”

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