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Tracking COVID-19 Led to Better Data Sharing at HHS

Chief data officers across HHS are strengthening platforms that speed up data collection and management.
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The Department of Health and Human Services’ biosurveillance system is helping the agency better respond and pivot its data-sharing efforts to evolving demands.

HHS Protect, the agency’s COVID-19 biosurveillance system, has served as a common vantage point for what’s been happening in the U.S. regarding COVID-19 over the past year.

Using HHS Protect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been among the agencies at the heart of the pandemic response to communicate information like facility capacities, COVID-19 statistics and vaccination numbers to both other agencies and the public.

“The number of domains and topics has forced us to collaborate in near real time. It’s been both a challenge and an opportunity,” said CDC Chief Data Officer Alan Sim.

The pandemic demonstrated a need for a “whole-of-government approach,” said HHS Acting Chief Data Officer Kevin Duvall.

As such, CDC and HHS developed the platform to leverage data in understanding how the pandemic impacts the health care system — helping to deliver better resources to health care providers and enabling the public to get a full scope of the pandemic.

“[HHS Protect] is definitely something that has evolved as our data needs evolved throughout the process. What we collected from hospitals changed as we had certain spikes and increases on our health care system,” Duvall said. “For the first time ever, we are releasing facility-level information about capacity.”

Duvall said HHS took a two-pronged approach to develop the system. The first was collecting information to better understand how to work with state partners and federal emergency response teams and ensure hospitals had necessary support.

The second was transparency. HHS communicated to the public information about the health crisis and provided steps on safety precautions, like wearing a mask and maintaining social distance. This has progressed to vaccination campaigns in this next phase of the pandemic.

“[CDC is] doing a wonderful job articulating how well the vaccination campaign is going and how people are getting vaccinated,” Duvall said.

From a vaccine-reporting perspective, CDC was able to reduce turnover time of delivering reports from weeks or months to approximately 48 hours.

“We have about 64 jurisdictions and 21 pharmacy partners to really accelerate and streamline the vaccine reporting aspects,” Sim said. “The pandemic forced us all to look at our respective processes and policies, and examine how we can overcome these things to be more timely in responding.”

Duvall noted that collaboration will be essential across the federal workforce for the end of this pandemic and in response to future crises.

“How we figure out data sharing is going to be crucial to what we do next,” Duvall said.

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