CDC Gives Itself an Rx

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 19, 2022

What? A federal agency has taken a hard look at its own response over covid, found issues, and now vows to refocus its efforts?

Where are the streamed public hearings, the congressional positioning to call for institutional beheadings and partisan blame?

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it simply: An agency examination she ordered in April to look at criticisms of the CDC performance concluded the agency needs to change to act more quickly. So, she’s ordering that they do so.

How refreshing that someone in government can look at agency shortcomings and seek to address it rather than the constant deflection and denial to which we have become accustomed. The full report has not even been released yet.

Imagine if we could be looking at the Jan. 6, Capitol attack that way, or the constant political lying in the name of election preservation, or marketplace fraud — all mainstays of congressional battling over whom to blame.

Apparently, it was clear even within the agency that the CDC was spending relatively too much effort on the hard science at the expense of dealing with a spreading public health menace — a pattern that is being repeated with monkeypox and maybe even a sudden discovery of resurgent polio.

Covid has resulted in a million American deaths, disrupted the economy through lockdowns, and split public response over public health measures. The criticisms basically suggest it took the CDC too long to respond in practical ways that Americans can follow.

“This is our watershed moment. We must pivot,” Walensky told reporters. At risk is public trust in the premiere agency to forestall epidemics.

Will Changes Be Enough?

Surely, there are questions about whether the CDC can move fast enough, thoroughly enough to make a noticeable difference.

The general problem, as described, is that the agency, our foremost public health facility, is not nimble enough in a time of a real emergency like covid, and in a time of continuing threats from contagious diseases that move quickly from country to country. From Walensky’s description, the self-audit found that the agency made “some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes, from testing to data to communications to coordinate local health authorities to respond appropriately.

The CDC’s approach developed over decades was too academic and too confusing to the public to be practical in such an emergency, according to the critics. The CDC’s own first tests failed to produce accurate diagnostic tests, and testing issues have continued. Critics found advice confusing and lags in data collection unhelpful.

As the Axios news outlet noted, the country’s systemic problems in responding to health problems on the scale of covid is much bigger than any one agency — and the politicization of the pandemic only made things worse.

We lacked enough emergency stores of protective gear and masks, for example, because Homeland Security agencies thought their mission to prepare for hurricanes, floods and fires, not airborne disease. Hospitals were under-prepared for treatment of respiratory illness and sudden mass casualties.

Former President Donald Trump wanted to downplay the early spread of disease as a political matter and wanted to shine blame on China. Even after we knew what havoc covid was capable of wreaking, states like Florida insisted that businesses and schools reopen earlier than precautions could be taken to avoid further spread, and their governors openly resisted vaccination programs.

More Threats Loom

So, public health experts are saying that the CDC’s new effort is good, but that without much bigger, more fundamental changes, the U.S. might continue to be caught flat-footed by new threats.

We’re still recording rising numbers of covid, including reinfections despite vaccines, and about 400 U.S. deaths a day. The virus itself continues to mutate, requiring new vaccine approaches, new government costs, new worries about infection.

So does the resistance to masking and distancing, even on the New York subways, which still require masks. Vaccine rates for other diseases have plummeted along with covid measures.

Monkeypox is following the early steps of covid, and we’ve just started noticing polio infections identifiable in wastewater. Again, the diseases are thought to be carried from other countries, but no one really knows when. By contrast, the opioid pandemic is one of our own making, through over-prescription of pain drugs, and we’re still seeing legal cases produce legal awards of tens of millions of dollars in damages.

We see plenty of reports that the country’s public health workforce is short-staffed and burned out.

Throughout, the active misinformation campaign through mostly identifiable political sources has worsened the messaging by the CDC. In any case, much of the country’s public health response isn’t run at the federal level.

By insisting on exemptions to vaccines, by refusing even to wear a mask in the supermarket, our biggest blame for covid spread should be a lot more inward than on the structural shortcomings of the CDC. By demanding individual decision-making, we should accept our own responsibility — without public hearings and investigative bodies.




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