Monkeypox and COVID-19 highlight the need for real-time public health information

Having real-time information on things like the number of positive cases and resources could help prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19 and Monkeypox, which could potentially save lives.

More than 15 years ago, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was mandated by Congress by law to create a network that would provide this information. However, it still does not exist.

Today’s WatchBlog article examines our latest report on why HHS has yet to develop a public health information network and its efforts to create one.

You can also learn more by listening to our podcast with GAO’s Jennifer Franks.

What was the network supposed to provide?

The network, mandated by several federal laws, was intended to facilitate early detection and rapid response to outbreaks of potentially catastrophic infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.

For example, it would be able to provide the number of new cases of disease and the availability of vaccines in near real time. Having this information could directly impact our nation’s preparedness for public health emergencies and potentially save lives.

The network was also to include data from various entities such as federal agencies, state and local public health entities, laboratories, pharmacies and systems that monitor diseases spread between animals and humans.

The law required HHS to build the network on existing or new state systems, which would have made it easy and quick to share information electronically.

What progress has HHS made on the network?

HHS has made minimal progress in developing a network.

For example, HHS has begun drafting a plan on how to implement the network, but further action is needed. We have recommended 12 such actions that HHS should take in the right direction.

To progress in the development of the network, HHS must assign roles and responsibilities to the entity responsible for its implementation. Additionally, HHS should share lessons learned from COVID-19 with states, territories, and local public health officials.

HHS officials told us they are currently working to define roles and responsibilities for implementing the network and sharing lessons they have learned from COVID-19.

Congress Considers Further Actions

Congress continues to emphasize the need to improve public health situational awareness and is considering requiring additional steps to advance the implementation of life-saving capabilities, such as the creation of a new agency that would oversee network development. We will continue to monitor actions taken by Congress and federal agencies to improve the nation’s response to public health emergencies.

To learn more about HHS’s efforts to implement the network, see our report.

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