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Bloomberg Businessweek|December 27, 2021 - January 03, 2022 (Double Spread)
Data-tracking failures at the CDC are fueling political support for an overhaul of the agency
Drew Armstrong

A year into the Covid-19 vaccination campaign, the U.S. government still faces data shortcomings that cloud its vision of who’s getting vaccinated and at what rate.

The record-time development of the shots was a (mostly) American triumph. Now vaccines are plentiful in the U.S. and offer meaningful protection for those who get them. But in another way the U.S. has lagged. America’s public-health authorities have struggled to monitor the rollout of vaccines and to track how effective they are.

The most recent example: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been overcounting the number of Americans who’ve received at least one dose of vaccine. The agency’s data are far offfrom what many states have been reporting on their own, meaning there are millions more unvaccinated than its numbers show.

That issue followed another a few weeks earlier. After the U.S. cleared Covid shots for kids age 5 to 11 at the start of November, it took the CDC almost three weeks to publish data on how many children had been vaccinated. In the meantime, an impatient White House started its own ad hoc data collection effort, assembling vaccination numbers for the age group from states and vaccine providers, according to people familiar with the matter.

Those problems are just the latest. This spring the U.S. stopped counting many vaccine breakthrough cases, information that was critical for deciding how and when to roll out boosters. And the government still lacks complete data on the race and ethnicity of vaccine recipients, despite the Biden administration making equity a cornerstone of its rollout.

After two years of rising case counts and more than 800,000 deaths, there’s broad agreement that U.S. public-health systems need an overhaul, just as the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis paved the way for national security and banking reforms. The push is being led by influential persons in public health and in Congress who aim to better prepare the government for the next infectious-disease threat the world will confront.

The slow-to-arrive kids data felt like déjà vu. I’m one of the people who run the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, our newsroom effort to tally every Covid vaccine going into arms around the world. When we began the project in December 2020, our team of journalists would reach out to states and foreign governments each day and produce a count of how many doses had been administered. It was laborious, complex work, but we figured the CDC and the World Health Organization would quickly put us out of business.

That didn’t happen.

The CDC took months to catch up to data that was being published independently by states. Entities such as the WHO didn’t have real-time access to data on vaccinations and ended up relying for several months on third-party sources for information, according to a person familiar with the organization’s efforts. The situation was an echo of the first year of the pandemic, when nongovernment sources such as the Covid Tracking Project and Johns Hopkins University were the go-to resource for data on the virus.

Robert Redfield, director of the CDC during the Trump administration, says the agency’s inability to provide seemingly basic information on the virus bothered him. “I was quite embarrassed that everybody quotes Johns Hopkins or Bloomberg,” he says. “Why aren’t they quoting CDC?”

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