From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials understood that using data to gather insights from otherwise inert information across the entire health ecosystem would improve public health outcomes, but raising the value of that data requires a lot of work, according to several public health officials.

On day two of AFCEA’s 15th Annual Health IT Summit on Jan. 18, public health officials explained that the state of data collection, storage, analytics, and sharing was not up to the task of getting ahead of the virus outbreak.

“We knew that we didn’t have the public health data capture transmission analytic infrastructure that was going to be needed to try to get ahead of the [COVID virus outbreak]. We rushed in to stand up data capture and analytics platforms in real-time,” said Dr. Sara Brenner, chief medical officer for in vitro diagnostics and associate director for medical affairs in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Brenner added that out of the gate, the public health sector had a multifaceted approach to collecting diagnostic data to understand where the virus was, and clinical data to understand how well the tests are performing.

“The grand challenge was trying to get all that data aggregated into an analytics platform where we could make sense of it and perform different types of analyses with it,” Brenner said.

She added that because the FDA makes decisions about medical products based on performance data before they go to market, the agency needs a certain amount of data before it can authorize or approve products. In addition, the FDA needs to collect data on how that product is performing after it goes to market and is rolled out to a far larger population of people.

“So, we worked with state and local governments to try to modernize in real time how their COVID-19 data was going in that included diagnostic data,” Brenner said.

Dr. Aloka Chakravarty, senior statistical advisor and director of data analytics in the Office of the Commissioner at the FDA, reiterated the importance of data in responding to public health emergencies.

“Data is your foundation. From that information comes insight and from that insight comes actionable decisions. But, before the data can be actionable, we need to go through several of these units because we have these silos of data that underpins the health IT ecosystem,” Chakravarty said.

The pandemic, Chakravarty added, made it clear how fragmented systems and departments are, and how these silos of data made it difficult to share insight between systems and departments.

“We are at a transition point where we should look at data as a team sport,” Chakravarty said. “Because you must have the data scientists, statisticians, bioinformaticians, technology, and IT staffers all talking together in common language and common terms to understand each other’s needs and address them,” Chakravarty said.

Dylan George, the director of operations for the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed with Chakravarty that the public health sector is currently at a transformative moment.

“We live in an era of pandemics and epidemics. But we also have had major stumbles in how we use data as a superpower to engage and help keep our families and communities safe from infectious disease outbreaks,” George said.

To respond to that need the public health infrastructure needs to be much more robust and capable of handling and extracting insight from public health data, George said. However, there have been challenges over the last few years in using data to guide decision-making in a time of crisis.

According to George, one of the reasons for that is that infections happen to individuals and communities very quickly during the outbreak of a pandemic.

“Many people start becoming infected, many communities start being infected across jurisdictions, across different providers, and it happens very quickly. That overwhelms the way we’ve organized ourselves in providing health care and providing public health,” George said. That shows the public health sector needs a system that can move at speed and scale, the official said.

The CFA has begun to start work in trying to pre-position data analytics “to make sure that we can have analytical capabilities at speed and scale to support the Federal government, state and local decision-makers going forward,” George said.

Currently, the CFA is piloting a handful of different innovative ways of bringing data scientists into the Federal government working collaboratively with the private sector, and moving information more quickly to state and local decision-makers.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk State and Local Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.