Until a very short time ago, hospitals across the nation had a single place to send their data on test results, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19—the National Healthcare Safety Network. That database, controlled by the Centers of Disease Control, fed into dashboards and data sources that were visible to the public and available for analysis by researchers. But that abruptly changed in the second week of July when hospitals were told to change both the way they encoded their information, and the location where it was sent. Rather than the CDC, the data would go to a new location controlled by the Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC was completely bypassed. For some days, their dashboards were not updated at all, and even now some of the data that used to be available is missing.
Immediately, state officials complained that they could not see the information from hospitals in their own states. Meanwhile, Donald Trump threatened to send the National Guard to hospitals to see that they “did it right.” Suspicions about the new database grew when it became clear that the data wasn’t really going to the HHS, but to a private tech company which partnered another tech headed by a Republican mega-donor. And suspicions grew again when the miraculous news came down that the switchover in databases coincided exactly with a supposed slowdown in the rate of new cases. And now a new investigation shows that … it’s even worse than it seemed.
The company directly behind the new HHS Protect Now database is called TeleTracking Technologies. The CEO of that company, Michael Zamagias, has direct links with not just New York real estate projects in general, but with billions of dollars of projects with the Trump Organization. To build the new database, TeleTracking turned to data-mining firm Palantir. That company is owned by billionaire Republican donor, Facebook investor, and would-be vampire Peter Thiel. Palantir was also behind “profiling tools” used by ICE to select targets.
How did Zamagias and Thiel come to be running a database on COVID-19, replacing an already existing and functional database at the CDC? Illegally, of course.
A new investigation from NPR shows that HHS marked the multi-million dollar deal down as a “no bid contract,” handing it directly to TeleTracking. HHS then backtracked and changed the code to say that the contract was “competitively bid,” but without providing specifications or listing bids solicited from other contractors. HHS now claims that six companies bid for the contract, but it won’t name those companies, show any of the bids, or provide the reasons that it chose to go with TeleTracking. NPR contacted more than 20 competing companies that have contracted with CDC or HHS in the past in collecting hospital data and could not find a single company that had bid on this contract.
In fact, rather than putting out a contract for bid and getting submissions from contractors, HHS directly contacted TeleTracking to inform them about the project. The whole “bidding” process was run in a way that reverses what the rules, and laws, require. Then, to fast track the money to TeleTracking and hurry the project past normal review, HHS used an emergency process intended for “innovative scientific research” like vaccine development, not the construction of a dead-simple database.
So the CDC tracking database—the existing, already running, CDC database that had been providing data to researchers, state government, and federal agencies—was abruptly changed. Not only did it mean that an existing data source was abruptly cut off, it meant that every hospital in the nation had to stop filling out a form they’d been completing daily for 15 years and switch to an entirely new form and new coding in the middle of a pandemic.
The claim was that this would “reduce the reporting burden," but accounts from hospitals indicate just the opposite. The new database is more complex and requires them to enter almost twice as much information. It also has no interface to accept data from existing hospital systems or spreadsheets, meaning that the data has to be keyed into the system manually each day.
The end result of this process is that, where the government owned the CDC data and it was highly visible, the more than 6,000 hospitals nationwide are now entering their data into a database that is not controlled by the government, using proprietary software that the government does not own. And the data that actually ends up being fed back to the public is only what TeleTracking provides.
The handover of data control from CDC to TeleTracking is, quite justifiably, leading to concerns about the accuracy of data reporting. And it’s compounding information that both Texas and Florida have been suppressing the true number of deaths resulting from COVID-19.
- What made changing the database such an emergency that it had to happen in the middle of a pandemic?
- What specifications did HHS provide for building a replacement?
- Did any other companies actually bid on the replacement, and how was TeleTracking selected?
But most of all: How big is the lie America is being told about the current state of COVID-19 cases and deaths?