Faxes and email: Old technology slows COVID-19 response

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Washington,  May 13(BNA): On April 1, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emailed Nevada public health counterparts for lab reports on two travelers who had tested positive for the coronavirus. She asked Nevada to send those records via a secure network or a “password protected encrypted file” to protect the travelers’ privacy.

The Nevada response: Can we just fax them over?

You’d hardly know the U.S. invented the internet by the way its public health workers are collecting vital pandemic data. While health-care industry record-keeping is now mostly electronic, cash-strapped state and local health departments still rely heavily on faxes, email and spreadsheets to gather infectious disease data and share it with federal authorities, said an AP report. 

This data dysfunction is hamstringing the nation’s coronavirus response by, among other things, slowing the tracing of people potentially exposed to the virus. In response, the Trump administration set up a parallel reporting system run by the Silicon Valley data-wrangling firm Palantir. 

Duplicating many data requests, it has placed new burdens on front-line workers at hospitals, labs and other health care centers who already report case and testing data to public health agencies.

There’s little evidence so far that the Palantir system has measurably improved federal or state response to COVID-19.

Emails exchanged between the CDC and Nevada officials in March and early April, obtained by The Associated Press in a public records request, illustrate the scope of the problem. 

It sometimes takes multiple days to track down such basic information as patient addresses and phone numbers. One disease detective consults Google to fill a gap. Data vital to case investigations such as patient travel and medical histories is missing.

None of this is news to the CDC or other health experts. “We are woefully behind,” the CDC’s No. 2 official, Anne Schuchat, wrote in a September report on public health data technology. She likened the state of U.S. public health technology to “puttering along the data superhighway in our Model T Ford.”

This information technology gap might seem puzzling given that most hospitals and other health care providers have long since ditched paper files for electronic health records. Inside the industry, they’re easily shared, often automatically.

But data collection for infectious-disease reports is another story, particularly in comparison to other industrialized nations. Countries like Germany, Britain and South Korea — and U.S. states such as New York and Colorado — are able to populate online dashboards far richer in real-time data and analysis. 

In Germany, a map populated with public data gathered by an emergency-care doctors’ association even shows hospital bed availability.

In the U.S., many hospitals and doctors are often failing to report detailed clinical data on coronavirus cases, largely because it would have to be manually extracted from electronic records, then sent by fax or email, said Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo.

It’s not unusual for public health workers to have to track patients down on social media, use the phone book or scavenge through other public-health databases that may have that information, said Rachelle Boulton, the Utah health department official responsible for epidemiological reporting. Even when hospitals and labs report that information electronically, it’s often incomplete.

In 75% of COVID-19 cases compiled in April, data on the race and ethnicity of victims was missing. A report on children affected by the virus only had symptom data for 9%of laboratory-confirmed cases for which age was known. A study on virus-stricken U.S. health care workers could not tally the number affected because the applicable boxes were only checked on 16% of received case forms. In another study, the CDC only had data on preexisting conditions — risk factors such as diabetes, heart and respiratory disease — for 6% of reported cases.