Opinion: Trump’s data grab blindfolds us

After months spent railing against numbers that show the coronavirus isn’t going to “disappear, like a miracle,” President Trump has suddenly ordered hospitals nationwide to send their daily COVID-19 data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services — bypassing the politically neutral Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is cause for alarm.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California raised warnings about Trump’s COVID-denial tactics in May — well before he sidelined the CDC — condemning the “misinformation campaign coming from the White House ... claiming the death count has been inflated.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois pushed back against the order, writing, “Trump knows that if hospital data is publicly available through the CDC, everyone will see how badly he’s bungled the response to the COVID-19 crisis. So instead, he seems to be taking steps to stop us seeing the data at all.”

Every company still afloat knows credible data is the lifeblood of business — and it’s just as essential for school districts, states and organizations managing critical supplies. Without accurate and readily available data, decisions can’t be made.

We’ve already seen the financial havoc and human tragedy wrought when states loosen restrictions too early, based on skewed data. Hurried reopenings in Texas and Florida have stalled as COVID-19 spikes and ICUs fill. July 24 saw 133 new COVID-19 deaths in Florida and 170 in Texas.

Here in Colorado, we’ve been fortunate that reopening has been handled with comparative care, by a governor focused on science and guided by new case counts and infection rate trends. But what happens when even governors, mayors and business leaders who value uncompromised data can’t access it? How will they make sound decisions? An endless cycle of premature reopening, surging cases and scrambling closures will spell doom for businesses and local economies — and it will be a tragedy spelled out nationwide.

[pullquote-1] Just as Trump has hidden inconvenient USDA data that doesn’t support his feeling that climate change is also “a hoax,” he’s doing all he can to hit the brakes on COVID data. He cites false figures and publicly attacks the accuracy of the death toll and case count, even boasting that he told officials to “slow the testing down.”

That wasn’t a joke. Last week the White House pushed to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing in the upcoming coronavirus relief bill, drawing bipartisan ire that finally forced the administration to back down.

Republican governors have “given up on trying to speak to Trump directly about COVID-19” and Dan Carney, adviser to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, told The New York Times that the president “got bored with” the pandemic.

With more than 147,000 Americans already dead from COVID-19 and cases climbing, Trump’s preferred narrative is still anything that will get him reelected. He needs the numbers to appear to go down, even if they don’t. He needs the power to hide the truth from Americans, and he has it.

As countries with well-managed, science-based COVID-19 responses emerge from chaos into a careful new normal, cases in the United States are skyrocketing. There’s just no end in sight.

Businesses are going under every day, and those hanging on must be able to plan to survive. Recovery is hard enough without throwing unreliable data into the mix. Under Trump’s new order, we can expect numbers to be hidden, fudged or buried.

Bad data is worse than no data. Bad data is dangerous. If COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospital resources are misrepresented, it will give the impression that the coronavirus is under control; that we’re safe to keep reopening — even if we’re not.

Those decisions could exact a toll not just on the economy, but on lives.

Editorial board: Regan Foster, Bryan Grossman, Mary Jo Meade, Helen Robinson, Amy Gillentine Sweet