Opinion: Trump’s data grab blindfolds businesses

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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 last week 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.”

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Every company still afloat knows data is the lifeblood of business — for products, services, marketing, competition, projections and strategy. Without accurate and readily available data, informed 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. Texas and Florida’s hurried reopenings have stalled as COVID-19 spikes and ICUs fill. July 21 saw 132 new COVID-19 deaths in Florida and 118 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 accurate 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. 

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. Right now the White House is pushing to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing in the next upcoming coronavirus relief bill, drawing bipartisan ire.

Even Republican governors are “concluding they must work around Mr. Trump” on the COVID-19 crisis, The New York Times reports, and Dan Carney, adviser to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, told the Times that the president “got bored with” the pandemic.

With more than 142,000 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 just got 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 still hanging on need to 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 the numbers to be hidden, massaged, 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 in business profits, but in lives.

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