The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control admitted Wednesday that her agency’s problems, magnified during its mishandling of the COVID pandemic, can only be remediated by what she called an ‘ambitious’ overhaul.- Sponsored –
Dr. Gail Walensky, former professor at Harvard Medical School and the one-time chief of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital said Wednesday that missteps during the most recent pandemic and the slow response to the spread of the disease known as “Monkeypox” have persuaded her significant changes are necessary.
CDC critics have long argued its COVID recommendations were often useless or counterproductive to stopping the virus from spreading. Sometimes both. One oft-cited example is its development of a test to detect the disease that failed to work after it was made available, potentially providing an inaccurate picture of the novel coronavirus’s spread.
The agency’s new focus, she wrote in an agency-wide email, would be on becoming “more nimble and responsive to needs that arise in health emergencies,” Statnews.com reported, while making it a priority to gather data “that can be used to rapidly dispense public health guidance, rather than craft scientific papers.”
Yet it is the issuance of exactly that kind of public health guidance, agency critics say, that led to confusion during the COVID pandemic, potentially making the situation worse by creating a false sense of security that left people feeling they were protecting themselves by utilizing measures that were ineffective in stopping the spread or preventing exposure to the virus. One of those, the social distancing guideline setting out the need for people to remain at least six feet apart from one another is now known to have been issued based on no scientific testing whatsoever. It was, people now feel comfortable acknowledging, a made-up number that did not come from, as it was popular to say at the time, “following the science.”
In her email, Walensky told the agency’s 11,000 employees, “For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.” Her new goal, she wrote, is to create “a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness.”
She has a long way to go. Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at the Yale School of Public Health told CBS News “We saw during COVID that CDC’s structures, frankly, weren’t designed to take in information, digest it and disseminate it to the public at the speed necessary.”
What the agency did do was assist in the politicization of the disease, confuse the public, and fight all efforts to be held accountable for its mistakes on Capitol Hill. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Zachary Faria – who acknowledged Walensky was not at the CDC when the pandemic began – nonetheless added to the confusion by misstating the president’s intentions regarding vaccine mandates.
“She confused the public repeatedly, saying that President Joe Biden was considering a vaccination mandate before backtracking to say that there ‘Will be no federal mandate.’ Not even two months later, Biden did indeed put a vaccine mandate in place,” Faria wrote.
The CDC director also helped inflame the public’s anxiety by appearing at congressional hearings wearing two masks despite having received several doses of the vaccine. Such displays of caution on her part conflicted with the messages public health experts were sending to the American people who, seeing things with their own eyes, saw that even they were not sure what they were telling everyone was correct.
“Worst of all was how Walensky and the CDC justified restrictions on children, who have never been at serious risk from COVID,” Faria wrote, explaining her repeated change in position about social distancing in schools and the need to vaccinate teachers and students helped keep schools closed for an unacceptable period.
“If your culture is not aligned entirely with what your mission is, it doesn’t matter how good the strategy is. It doesn’t matter what your org charts are. It is all about the workforce culture,” Jay Varma, who spent 20 years at CDC before becoming director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response at Weill Cornell Medicine told Statnews.com.
“It’s an agency run by geeks. It’s run by doctors and Ph.D.’s,” Varma said. “What are doctors and scientists notoriously bad at? Managing. They’re really good at hypothesis-driven research and analyzing information and making predictions about what might happen. What they’re really bad at is managing people in an effective way.”
Walensky will need time to make the changes – but it is time the country may now have. The CDC has been slow to respond to the emergence of Monkeypox, an infectious viral disease occurring in humans and other animals marked by fever, swollen lymph nodes and a rash that forms blisters that eventually crust over. The fact that is spreading disproportionately “among men who have sex with men and their sexual networks,” as CNN recently put it, has heightened concerns that political sensitivities are being allowed to interfere with the steps needed to prevent it from spreading into the at-large population.
“Not wanting to reproduce the kind of anti-gay stigma seen during the early AIDS crisis, some argue that articulating which group is at highest risk for monkeypox infection might be dangerous,” CNN said, probably unaware that this was an almost exact description of how the CDC and other public health agencies failed in their reaction to COVID even before it reached the pandemic level.
Against the advice of many who suggested the primary objective should be the isolation of those at high risk for fatal outcomes following exposure to COVID, the CDC and others attempted to isolate and immunize the nation. This led to economic and social lockdowns from which it will take years, perhaps decades before America can recover. It can be said the CDC’s bad advice, politicization and lack of readiness cost the nation hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
For nearly two years the CDC and other public health agencies and administrators made pronouncements that infected the American way of life at every level, often without debate or examination. Efforts to call their dictates into question were ridiculed, even suppressed, at great cost to the nation. It’s helpful that Walensky wants to reform her agency, but the best reforms come only after we know what happened to cause the problems.
Somehow, Walensky and other public health policymakers want to skip over that critical phase. No one wants to acknowledge their mistakes in public, especially if people died because of them. Nonetheless, they should not be allowed to hide behind the banner of reform now without being held accountable. America deserves an explanation, post-COVID, of how things were allowed to get as bad as they did. Not just an explanation of where the disease came from and whether it was produced in some far-off biological research facility and somehow got away but why the response to the infection was met with so much inconsistent advice coming from the government agencies employing the well-paid, well-funded experts who were supposed to know it all.
They didn’t, and we deserve to know why.