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HHS to Sustain COVID-19 Data Platform for Future Health Crises

The agency stood up its HHS Protect platform quickly amid the pandemic, and now it will have uses in future efforts.

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The Department of Health and Human Services is looking to build off the COVID-19 data platform it established during the pandemic to leverage public health data and respond to future public health crises.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded last year, HHS sought a data-driven response, but according to HHS Chief Data Scientist and Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Kristen Honey, there was no one data source to drive that response. As a result agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created HHS Protect, a secure data-sharing platform to guide the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

HHS not only connected data sources across health agencies, but also it sought new ways to collect COVID-19 data in HHS Protect, such as point-of-case diagnostic data. This involved incorporating different tools that states, localities, communities and organizations were using to collect data, not just those of diagnostic laboratories.

Now that HHS has built out HHS Protect — as well as its public-facing version, HHS Protect Public — Honey said the system’s infrastructure will make health data actionable beyond the pandemic.

“The ecosystem has matured more, the data sharing has matured more, and we’ve built up a lot of infrastructure and responsiveness to adapt to a rapidly moving virus and pandemic and all of its major impacts on our society,” Honey said. “How do we intentionally keep that infrastructure that helped us in COVID so it can improve other mission bases, so that it can help all of Health and Human Services, and we’re not just going back to the old ways of business?”

One of the ways that HHS is looking to expand data capabilities is through recent strides standing up its Office of the Chief Data Officer, which has helped HHS establish its data governance board and guidance on how to leverage data as a strategic asset. The HHS CDO and CIO are now partnering with the CDC, FDA, NIH and other agencies involved with HHS Protect to intentionally keep the platform’s infrastructure to help use data for future crises.

“I think the next future phase for things like HHS Protect really will be in future pandemic response preparedness, all hazards, and even going out to data-driven approaches to bridging health disparities, looking at the data, the evidence to find where are the gaps in disparities and health outcomes, and how can we do targeted interventions in those areas that are customized for that region or for those users?” Honey said. “’Protect’ is a tool that helps us do that with COVID, and the department’s working really hard to make sure that level of data sharing, level of data use for evidence-based policymaking will continue long after this pandemic is behind us.”

The agency has also been collaborating across the federal space to develop more robust datasets and data-sharing capabilities. Honey said the agency worked with the departments of Defense, Energy and Veterans Affairs to move COVID-19 datasets to Energy supercomputers to advance discoveries with COVID-19.

“[We] all got together and worked on data sharing and basically moving large datasets from the agencies onto Department of Energy supercomputers to enable high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning,” Honey said. “That was really insightful that accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, and because of that collaboration on supercomputers with AI, ML, we saw patterns and complexity in the data that our human minds never would have captured.”

As the agency continues to break down data silos within HHS and across other departments, Honey added that in the future, data leadership at HHS is looking to mature its ethics principles and use data to bridge health disparities.

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