‘To avoid misinterpretation,’ CDC says it withheld much of its critical COVID data, questions swirl

From the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the government has relied heavily on guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to form their policies, but as a New York Times article reveals, much of the information the CDC has collected has not been published, including “vitally important data.”

Two weeks ago, the CDC published its first significant findings on the effectiveness of boosters in adults under the age of 65. The problem? It failed to include vital numbers for 18-49-year-olds, who are less likely to benefit from being boosted, leaving the outside experts whom federal health agencies turn to for advice reliant upon published numbers from Israel for their recommendations.

While the CDC has been tracking and sharing critical wastewater data with some states and localities since the pandemic began, it has only now released those findings to the masses via a new dashboard on its website, which the CDC has said will be updated daily. By analyzing wastewater, it is possible, for example, to predict oncoming COVID surges, allowing cities and states to get ahead of any potential adjustments hospitals would need to make to avoid being overwhelmed.

But after two years of COVID, “the agency leading the country’s response to the public health emergency has published only a tiny fraction of the data it has collected, several people familiar with the data said.”

“Detailed, timely data on hospitalizations by age and race would help health officials identify and help the populations at highest risk,” writes journalist Apoorva Mandavilli. “Information on hospitalizations and death by age and vaccination status would have helped inform whether healthy adults needed booster shots.”

But according to CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund, the crucial data streams have been withheld, “because basically, at the end of the day, it’s not yet ready for prime time, adding that the agency’s “priority when gathering any data is to ensure that it’s accurate and actionable” to prevent it from being “misinterpreted.”

The CDC’s deputy director for public health, science and surveillance, Dr. Daniel Jernigan, noted that the agency’s data systems and those of some state’s were simply not up to the task of handling such enormous volumes of data.

“We want better, faster data that can lead to decision making and actions at all levels of public health, that can help us eliminate the lag in data that has held us back,” Jernigan said.

Add to that the fact that the CDC has to give the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services a heads up before it publishes anything important, and must get multiple divisions to sign off on them, and delays are inevitable.

Samuel Scarpino, the managing director of pathogen surveillance for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, states, “The CDC is a political organization as much as it is a public health organization. The steps that it takes to get something like this released are often well outside of the control of many of the scientists that work at the CDC.”

The CDC has already been criticized for its decision not to track “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated Americans and for focusing only on those who either required hospitalization or died, but leaving out such an huge amount of the population in its study of booster efficacy is a next-level omission.

And it’s not as though the CDC didn’t have the information. They’ve been collecting it since the vaccines were rolled out, but chose not to make their findings public “because they might be misinterpreted as the vaccines being ineffective.”

According to Nordlund, another reason for the CDC’s reluctance to publish is that the data collected is only representative of 10% of the US population. But, as Mandavilli points out, “the CDC has relied on the same level of sampling to track influenza for years.”

That the information even exists is a jarring revelation to many outside experts.

Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera said, “We have been begging for that sort of grunularity of data for two years,” adding that a detailed analysis “builds public trust, and it paints a much clearer picture of what’s actually going on.”

Fear of data being misrepresented is no excuse, according to Rivera, who was part of the Covid Tracking Project team.

Said Rivera, “We are at a much greater risk of misinterpreting the data with data vacuums, than sharing the data with proper science, communication and caveats.”



Melissa Fine


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