According to Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, Acting Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Public Health Science and Surveillance, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the gaps in disease surveillance “in a very real way “.
At the start of the pandemic, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which included $ 500 million in allocations to the CDC specifically for the modernization of public health data.
The agency used this money to complement other funding for its Data Modernization Initiative activities, aimed at effectively identifying and mitigating emerging threats and better preparing the country for public health risks.
A lesson from all of this, Jernigan said at DirectTrust Summit 2021 this week, is “never let a crisis go to waste.”
“When COVID hit us in January , some systems were in place and we were able to use them, but they were not interoperable; they weren’t scalable, ”Jernigan said.
Last summer, the former Trump administration raised the alarm when it ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and instead report COVID-19 patient data to the US Department of Health and Human Services. At the time, the move caused confusion and chaos in hospitals, which had only a few days notice to make the change.
But the administration maintained the change was necessary to stay on top of the pandemic, given the limitations of the CDC’s existing tools.
Jernigan noted the complexity of arriving at a place of “true interoperability”, which aims to ensure that health information is shared in the right way, through the right channel, at the right time.
“We think of it in terms of the process at ground level,” he explained.
For example, officers meet with forensic pathologists and coroners regarding death data to investigate barriers to reporting. Some users found the reporting systems to be cumbersome, while others had technological issues.
“A forensic pathologist just didn’t have a computer,” Jernigan said.
He stressed the importance of the person when it comes to public health data. “Technology is only part of the puzzle,” he said. “Modernization isn’t just about technical upgrades. People can use data to answer pressing policy questions and make decisions to save lives.”
Jernigan noted that iterative construction is essential: “For people accustomed to legacy systems, new technology can seem like a barrier. We focus on listening to end users” – while trying to minimize the delay between assumption and discovery.
Jernigan also argued that shared solutions are more powerful and more sustainable.
“None of us operate in a bubble,” he said. Ultimately, he said, one of the goals of the Data Modernization Initiative is to “put people – and keep them – at the center”.