Federal and local health departments need to invest in better data tracking technology to quickly respond to viral outbreaks, such as COVID-19 and the “tridemics” of influenza, RSV, and COVID that are currently weighing on hospitals, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Walensky’s remarks at the Bloomberg American Health Summit, held at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia, came a day after she urged Americans at a CDC press conference to be proactive in protecting themselves. and protect others by wearing a mask indoors and on public transport.
She also recommended people see a doctor if they have symptoms and get vaccinated.
“The past few years have certainly not been easy, and now we are facing a new wave of disease, another time of overloaded capacity, and a time of tragic and often avoidable sadness,” Walensky said during a CDC briefing on Monday.
The CDC has recorded at least 8.7 million flu cases, including 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths, since October, the Washington Post reported.
Children’s hospitals have been inundated with cases of RSV, a flu-like virus that can cause serious respiratory problems in very young children and those with underlying health conditions.
“Our hospital is filling up with young babies struggling to breathe,” James Reingold, director of emergency medicine at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, told The Inquirer in early November.
READ MORE: As respiratory virus cases rise in Philly-area children, children’s hospitals fill up
COVID cases and hospitalizations are also increasing in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but remain within the range the region has seen for the past two months.
On Tuesday, Walensky focused on what the CDC and public health agencies can do to be better prepared for future outbreaks, namely modernizing data collection operations.
The pandemic exposed how inadequate the CDC’s health data collection system was, Walensky said, noting that at the start of the pandemic, the agency lacked the ability to track COVID test results. .
The CDC has little power to compel local or state health agencies to share data. Information may arrive incomplete and months or even years late, too late to be useful for policy-making.
“The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have made us acutely aware of the urgent need to create an agile public health culture,” Walensky said.
Health agencies need to do more than just speed up data delivery, she said. Every municipality, county, and state has a different system for collecting and sharing data, making it difficult to compare and standardize data. The CDC has struggled to collect standardized data on firearm-related injuries and deaths, diabetes and hypertension, among other health conditions, Walensky said.
“Some are still working on fax machines from the 1980s,” she said.
Walensky promoted a bill in Congress that would create a data center where local health entities could enter information, ensuring standardization. She said efforts to improve data sharing have led more than 20,000 healthcare facilities nationwide to participate in an automated program that aggregates patient data in near real-time.
Still, participants represent only 22% of hospitals enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare services and 9% of rural health care providers.
Other speakers included new Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, who spoke about his commitment to working on public health issues such as violence, the environment and substance abuse. Philadelphia is experiencing one of the nation’s worst major city overdose crises: a record 1,276 people died of overdoses here in 2021.
After his public remarks, Shapiro told The Inquirer that he remains opposed to efforts to open a place in Philadelphia where people with drug addictions can use drugs under medical supervision. The federal government on Monday asked for more time to respond to a lawsuit over a proposed supervised injection site in the city.
Writer Aubrey Whelan and The Washington Post contributed to this article.
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