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A New CDC Tool Aims To Close The COVID-19 Knowledge Gap


Scientists have been consistent in saying that there are three things that will ultimately get us out of this pandemic; testing, tracking and eventually a vaccine. The United States has fallen far short so far of what is needed. It's been more than two months since the first case of coronavirus was reported in the U.S. And yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally unveiled the first national system for tracking this pandemic. Federal officials say it will be a powerful tool, but public health officials are saying it's not going to be enough. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to talk about this. Good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we get to why, this new system is being criticized. Can you explain what this new system is, how it's supposed to work?

STEIN: It's called COVIDView, and it's modeled on something called FluView, which the CDC uses to track the flu every year. The idea is to try to track the coronavirus in similar ways, you know, using data like how many people are testing positive for the virus, how many people are showing up at doctors with fevers and coughs, pneumonia, how many are getting so sick that they end up in the hospital dying. Here's Lynnette Brammer. She's in charge of this new system.

LYNNETTE BRAMMER: We now have enough data that we can start looking at this on a weekly basis and look for trends just to really understand where we are in this pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this seems pretty important. How important does the CDC say this is? And how will it be used?

STEIN: Well, you know, Lulu as you mentioned, one of the biggest problems the U.S. has had in fighting the pandemic has been a shortage of testing, which pretty much left the country flying blind. You know, if you don't know where the virus is, you can't really fight it effectively.


STEIN: Yes. So the CDC says this new system will finally get a handle on just how bad things are around the country, you know, by gathering the results of the testing that's finally ramping up, you know, tallying how many people are getting and dying COVID-19 and to spot early warning signs, like, you know, surges of sick people showing up at their doctors, ERs getting overwhelmed to help do things, like figure out where to rush more ventilators and clamp down harder to stop the virus and hopefully really know whether all those drastic steps we're taking might be working. Here's Lynnette Brammer again from the CDC.

BRAMMER: In an outbreak like this, information is vitally important because it allows us to see where we're going in terms of illness activity. And it will help us to understand better as we go forward the impact that all these interventions that we're taking are having. You know, are people listening to our guidance and staying home? Is that having an impact on disease?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, so what is the response from public health experts?

STEIN: You know, the experts that I've been talking to say, look. You know, this kind of thing isn't perfect by any means, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. But some say it still falls far short of what's really needed. And it's just the latest example of how disappointing the federal government's response has been, you know, leaving individual states to fend for themselves, turning to a patchwork of volunteer efforts to fill the void. Here's Ashish Jha. He's at Harvard.

ASHISH JHA: Remember, we're in the middle of the greatest pandemic in a century. And so I think what they're doing is fine. And it is helpful. But we need something much more than that.

STEIN: Yeah, Jha's especially frustrated that this new system will only come out weekly. He says we need to know what's happening every day - seven days a week.

JHA: The pandemic doesn't take the weekend off. It's like fighting a war and not having real-time information about the battlefield, about where your enemy is, where - and not having satellite data and not having drone data or having it, you know, from a week ago, which really isn't useful in a fast-moving battle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein with that report. Thank you so much.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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