Feb. 22, 2022
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has only published a fraction of the data it collected about the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported, citing several people familiar with the data.
The CDC published information about the effectiveness of boosters for people under 65 two weeks ago but didn’t provide data about people 18-49 years old, the age group least likely to benefit from boosters because they’re already well protected by the first two shots, The Times said.
The CDC recently created a dashboard of how much COVID has been discovered in wastewater, though state and local agencies had been sending the CDC their own wastewater data since the start of the pandemic, The Times said. The appearance of COVID in wastewater can help health authorities predict outbreaks, scientists have said.
Some outside health experts were stunned to find out the CDC held back COVID information.
“We have been begging for that sort of granularity of data for two years,” Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and part of the team that ran Covid Tracking Project, told The Times. A more detailed picture would have improved public trust, she said.
The Times said the withheld data could have helped local and state health authorities respond during different stages of the pandemic and better protect vulnerable populations. The lack of booster information about 18-49-year-old forced federal health agencies to rely on data collected in Israel on recommendations for booster shots, The Times said.
When asked to comment, CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said the agency held back some information “because basically, at the end of the day, it’s not yet ready for prime time.”
The CDC prioritizes making sure information is accurate, she said, adding that the CDC fears the public might misinterpret some information.
Rivera rejected the idea that information should be withheld to avoid misinterpretation.
“We are at a much greater risk of misinterpreting the data with data vacuums, than sharing the data with proper science, communication and caveats,” she said.
The release of data is also delayed by bureaucratic procedures. The CDC must run information by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House as well as different divisions within the CDC before release. Sometimes state agencies need to be briefed before information is made widely available.
Paul Offit, MD, a vaccine expert and adviser to the Food and Drug Administration, urged more openness.
“Tell the truth, present the data,” he said. “I have to believe that there is a way to explain these things so people can understand it.”
The CDC has been criticized other times for lack of transparency. Last year, the CDC released information on breakthrough cases but only when a person was sick enough to be hospitalized. Vaccinated people who tested positive and isolated at home were not included in the count, leading to questions about the effectiveness of the vaccines.