On Tuesday, the White House launched the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, a new center under the umbrella of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — likened to a National Weather Service for infectious diseases.

At a summit in Washington, D.C., the federal government and other organizations, including local nonprofit NashvilleHealth, reviewed the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and discussed how to prepare for a future health threat as the death count in the U.S. for COVID-19 approaches 1 million.

mark yancy

Nashville Health CEO Mark Yancy. 

Planning for the new forecasting center began in 2020 with $200 million from the American Rescue Plan.

Prominent themes on the call included improving public health data, effectively communicating that data, public health workforce development, and a push toward health equity underlining these goals.

Mark Yancy was among the health leaders invited to participate. In February, he was named CEO of NashvilleHealth, a nonprofit started by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that focuses on improving health care outcomes in Nashville.

The segment in which Yancy participated focused on pandemic communication at the local level.

Panel moderator Seema Yasmin, director of research and education at the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, maps information inequity in the United States, and has found that access to information is a social determinant of health.

“Information access is deeply inequitable, so it's not just about more data,” Yasmin said. “It's not just about ‘better data.’ It's about what we do with this data and who has privileged access to it.”

Yancy spoke about one of the findings of NashvilleHealth’s COVID Response Review — that people in communities of color did not have a way to translate what was happening on the ground back up to decision makers. He said that local community members including social workers, school counselors and faith-based institutions could be that bridge.

The uncertainty of the pandemic can affect public health experts too, he said, causing them to lean on tried-and-true methods of data collection, which can have blind spots.

“We saw in the pandemic how data informed disease severity and disease spread and allocation of resources to hospitals and staff,” he said. “You have to continue to have those bridges. But we've got to also understand that we even have a bias towards our own information that we collect. When you have a particularly new and frightening situation like a COVID or new variant or new infectious disease, you have to offset that reliance on the empirical data in front of you with some qualitative data in those communities.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, appointed earlier this month as White House COVID-19 response coordinator said he hopes the forecasting centercan quell confusion.

“There's a lot of misinformation and there's a lot of confusion,” Jha said. “But there's also reasonable people who disagree on policy — people of good faith who think we should do a little more of this or a little less of that. And that's fine. That's really good and healthy … in a democracy. The problem here is that we often don't begin with the same book of facts. ”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said a center like CFA had been in her priorities since becoming the director in early 2021. She said the CDC doesn’t have the capacity or authority to collect needed COVID-19 data nationally. Wastewater data, for example, is voluntarily offered state by state, and not all states give it to the CDC.

“We don't have the authority at CDC to have a full line of sight of the data that we need,” she said. “We're struggling to ensure that after the public health emergency, we will have the authorities to collect the disease severity data, people who are being hospitalized.”

Walensky also said one of the challenges of the vaccine rollout was that there weren’t enough trusted community health workers.

“I firmly believe that if we had had local public health workers and community-based organizations doing blood pressure checks and nutrition consults, that when it came time to vaccinate, they would have been trusted in those communities and this would have been a much easier lift for all of us,” she said.

Walensky is asking for $50 million for the CDC for 2023, and the administration has proposed a pandemic preparedness plan, which includes $5.91 billion over five years to the CDC for early warning and situational awareness, including domestic and global threat detection, and the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics.