As the coronavirus continues to ravage the country, the way the government will collect data about Covid-19 cases changed today. On March 29, Vice President Mike Pence asked hospital administrators to report data about coronavirus through three different systems: the network provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), HHS Protect, and TeleTracking. Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that, beginning today, hospitals should report daily information about coronavirus cases not through the CDC system, which has been in place for 15 years, but rather through the other two.
This move has met with widespread condemnation as observers worry that Trump is trying to take control of information about the coronavirus in order to conceal it. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has hidden information this way, and Trump has made it clear he believes that if only he downplays the numbers, he can convince people to go back to work and resurrect the economy.
But there is another angle to this change that seems to me likely to be at least as attractive to the president as control over data information. That primary issue is money.
HHS Protect is developed by Palantir Technologies, a data-mining firm that works with the Pentagon and law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Peter Thiel, a billionaire Trump supporter, co-founded the company, which last week confidentially filed paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to go public. An initial public offering (IPO) would have made bucketloads of money in any case, but a federal contract to compile coronavirus information is a sweet addition to its portfolio.
The TeleTracking system also raises suspicions of a financial deal. On June 3, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) wrote to the director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield and the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Robert P. Kadlec, to ask why HHS had awarded a $10 million no-bid contract to create this data system that duplicated the one the CDC already had. Why indeed?
There is, in the letter shifting data collection, a peculiarly nasty stick. Underlined on the first page of the instructions is that “We will no longer be sending out one-time requests for data to aid in the distribution of Remdesivir or any other treatments or supplies. This daily reporting is the only mechanism used for the distribution calculations, and the daily [sic] is needed daily to ensure accurate calculations.”
Remdesivir is one of the two drugs proven effective at combatting Covid-19. Two weeks ago, the Trump administration bought up almost all of the world’s supply of the drug for the next three months.
The rest of the world was outraged at this purchase, but at the time HHS Secretary Alex Azar defended the move by saying “To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs remdesivir can get it. The Trump administration is doing everything in our power to learn more about life-saving therapeutics for Covid-19 and secure access to these options for the American people.”
Now, it appears, in order to get access to it, hospitals will need to use the private data systems the administration supports.
Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians. She previously taught at MIT and the University of Massachusetts.
Richardson has authored six books. Her sixth, entitled How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for America, was published in March 2020 with Oxford University Press.
She is also a founder and editor at Werehistory.org, which presents professional history to a public audience through short articles. Between 2017 and 2018, she co-hosted the NPR podcast Freak Out and Carry On. Most recently, Richardson started publishing “Letters from an American,” a nightly newsletter that chronicles the 2019 Trump–Ukraine scandal in the larger context of American history.