6 recommendations to improve the federal government’s COVID-19 public health surveillance system
Since February 2020, more than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Crises like this require a strong public health surveillance system that enables leaders to collect, analyze and interpret critical data about the prevalence and spread of disease. These systems help government leaders create policies and allocate resources based on predicted disease outbreak—in effect enabling effective responses to serious health crises.
Recently, the Partnership for Public Service developed a report that examines the federal government’s public health surveillance of COVID-19 from March 2020 to March 2021. The study offers several recommendations for federal leaders to improve their efforts in this area.
1. Equip public health surveillance systems with the data to address different health threats.
Federal funding to address public health threats has historically been tied to specific diseases, resulting in fragmented, siloed systems. For example, a health care practitioner may need to enter a patient’s name, age and sex multiple times into separate databases that track different diseases.
Congress can help federal agencies create systems that account for many health conditions and diseases by providing more robust and regular funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments, developing updated infrastructure policies to improve reporting standards, and building systems and technologies that can be adapted to address different health crises over time.
2. Advance health equity outcomes by improving data collection and addressing systemic disparities.
In the report, public health leaders cited data quality and governance as a common barrier to serving underrepresented populations during the pandemic. To collect missing information about where a disease has appeared and how it has spread, agency leaders should develop standardized definitions and reporting guidance for health equity and demographic data. The federal government should form cooperative agreements that require state and local actors to adhere to these guidelines to qualify for federal funding.
3. Implement policies and strategies to make public data more accessible, timely and secure.
Several experts said the federal government needed to increase access to its raw data as early as possible. This approach would enable organizations outside the public sector to use, adapt and analyze data according to their own needs. The administration and congressional leaders should implement policies and legislation to incentivize this type of data-sharing while addressing important privacy concerns around patient information.
4. Invest in a more robust, flexible and agile federal workforce.
A more robust, flexible and agile workforce is critical to agencies effectively responding to future health crises.
For example, federal health teams worked quickly to restructure their workforces in response to COVID-19. This shift required these teams to conduct remote training, partner with universities to recruit short-term talent, stand up temporary offices and positions to address data needs, and more. Agency leaders should continue to document the lessons learned from these efforts and determine what may be replicable and scalable for future use.
5. Rely on public health experts to shape responses to health crises.
To make well-informed decisions, policymakers and leaders should regularly consult with health data experts. Health data experts can advise on how data should be defined, collected and reported. When responding to a public health crisis, federal and state leaders should support health data experts by investing in agile data technologies and systems.
6. Strengthen cross-governmental collaboration around public health data.
The federal government should assist state- and county-level governments during future public health crises by providing clear reporting guidance and more efficient funding protocols, and supporting workforce development programs. Examples may include providing virtual skills-based training or streamlining reporting requirements to reduce the burden on state and local offices.
Enacting these six recommendations can positively impact the federal government’s public health data infrastructure and enable a stronger response to our next health crisis.