In a file open letter released this week, 1,044 former and current officers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, a renowned scholarship program that focuses on research and emergency response, expressed concern about the reduced role of the public health agency during the coronavirus pandemic. The letter had one clear question: take the CDC off the bench.
The letter, published in the magazine Epidemiological monitor, It was written by doctors, nurses, scientists and other health professionals who are former or current members of the EIS program. It was signed by two former CDC directors, Jeffrey Koplan, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and Tom Frieden, who served under President Barack Obama.
The letter highlighted the fact that in previous public health crises, the CDC has provided the public with the best information and recommendations available. In addition, it also collected and applied research from scientists from the agency and around the world.
But that CDC is hardly recognizable today, the agency’s former and current officials write. They also claim that there has been a “disturbing politicization and silencing of the national health protection agency” during the covid-19 pandemic.
“The absence of national leadership on Covid-19 is unprecedented and dangerous,” the letter said. “The US epidemic is underpinned by deadly chains of transmission that span the entire country. Yet states and territories have been left to invent their own different systems to define, diagnose and report cases of this highly contagious disease. Incoherent contact tracing efforts are limited to the borders of each state, while coronavirus infections are sadly not. “
This situation, the letter states, is “chaos,” something the CDC has been able to avoid in the past by working with state and local health authorities to develop national systems for disease surveillance and coordinated control.
“The CDC should be at the forefront of a successful response to this global health emergency,” the CDC’s previous and current officials write. “We urgently ask the American people to ask and the leaders of our nation to allow the CDC to resume its indispensable role.”
Up until now that role has, no doubt, been all over the place, and certainly not at the forefront. From being bullied to supporting President Donald Trump’s push to reopen schools advise against testing on asymptomatic people who have been exposed to the virus (which then came back), the agency was not the lighthouse of science and security we expect to be during a pandemic.
However, to be fair to the CDC, the dysfunction it currently finds itself in is directly related to the chaos that is the Trump administration, which has reportedly been meddling with CDC guidance and public communications. It is also difficult to provide the best advice to the public, such as the absolute need to wearing face masks to reduce the transmission of the virus, when the country’s president makes fun of his Democratic opponent for wearing a mask. (If you all remember, Trump tested positive for covid-19 shortly after mocking former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing a mask).
While well intentioned, It’s hard to imagine that the letter will inspire strong powers – also known as the Trump administration – to let the CDC do its job and protect Americans. But even if it can now fall into the void, there is an election coming up. If Biden wins, it is very likely that this letter would matter to his future administration and that the CDC would see his role changed.
We will have to wait and see.