CDC Director’s Mea Culpa

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced a “restructuring to strengthen its response to public-health threats,” acknowledging shortcomings in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Brianna Abbott, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said Dr. Walensky intended to improve the agency’s communication, timeliness and accountability. The CDC has at times amended its guidance on masking, isolation and other mitigation efforts in ways that spurred confusion or lagged behind the trajectory of the pandemic. Recently the agency has faced new criticism for its response to the monkeypox outbreak.

“In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Dr. Walensky said. “I want us all to do better, and it starts with CDC leading the way.” Notice she said “our performance”, not “my performance.” This is no mea culpa. The Wall Street Journal editorial board calls this “a mea minima culpa.”

Ms. Abbott says the CDC has drawn criticism during the pandemic including for changes to guidance on masking and for recommendations on how long to isolate after testing positive for the virus. Dr. Walensky has also drawn criticism for her communication of some CDC policies.

To encourage faster communication, Dr. Walensky wants to deemphasize academic paper publication from the promotion process, create an online mechanism to share findings before they are completely published, and expedite the data-review process to match the needs of the emergency. She wants to reshuffle the bureaucratic deck with an emphasis on ‘’action” and “equity.” In other words, if we have more equity in the CDC, we’ll get better results. This is “wokeness” as an excuse for failure.  She is blaming the process of communicating new scientific information, not the conclusions drawn from that process.

WSJ editors say her diagnosis and prescription are both wrong. The CDC once had a reputation for excellence, but Covid blew that up. Its bureaucracy, with 11,000 employees and some two dozen divisions, impeded a rapid and effective response to the virus. Bureaucracies always seek to expand their power and reach, often at the expense of their core mission. The CDC is certainly guilty of this as it sought to address social and environmental issues that are better left to the states or other agencies. Meantime, it has failed in its core mission, which is to track diseases, collect data to inform decision-making, and deploy resources to support local public-health responses.

Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner under the Trump Administration, says agency scientists took a proprietary interest in their intellectual property: “Companies seeking to make the test kits described extended negotiations with the CDC that stretched for weeks as the agency made sure that the contracts protected its inventions.”

WSJ says this culture of control has hamstrung the CDC’s response in other ways. During the early months of the pandemic, the CDC struggled to set up technical systems to analyze and share data. Some hospitals had to fax in information. Frustrated by the CDC’s pace, Health and Human Services Department leaders seized control of the Covid data in summer 2020.

WSJ says Democrats accused the Trump Administration of politicizing the CDC, but HHS’s seizure made data more transparent, not less. The CDC now posts more Covid data, but often late and omitting critical information. Instead of publishing raw data for outside scientists to analyze, the CDC often only releases studies that support its policies, such as mask mandates.

In my opinion, this is the heart of the problem – the politicization of the CDC. Just as the politicization of the FBI is destroying its credibility, the same is happening to the CDC. This became apparent early in the Biden Administration when Dr. Walensky announced to the press that studies by the CDC concluded that schools could re-open without the need for teachers to be vaccinated. Here’s what I said in a February, 2021 blog called CDC Director Caves to Politics:

“In an article published January 26th in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), three researchers from the CDC found “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission” of the coronavirus. The CDC researchers looked at more than 90,000 students in 11 North Carolina districts and found that only 32 students and staff members were infected in school, while 773 got infected during the same period out of school. The science was clear; reopening schools was safe for children and teachers.

Then Dr. Walensky made her big mistake. On February 3rd, she announced these findings to the press. She made it clear that the science supported reopening schools.  In her statement she said, “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” This was a direct refutation of the demands being made by teachers unions before they would return to the classrooms. When asked about her statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded Dr. Walensky was speaking “in her personal capacity” and not as the director of the CDC.”

 

Predictably, Dr. Walensky soon caved to pressure from the Biden White House to retract her statement. In so doing, she made it abundantly clear that keeping her job was more important than maintaining her personal credibility and the credibility of the CDC. What has transpired in the 18 months since that day has predictably been the decline of the CDC and rise of distrust among the American people.

Which brings us to this “restructuring plan.” It is my opinion, and that of many analysts, that this represents simply a public-relations campaign to resurrect the failing image of the CDC and the Biden Administration with less than 90 days until the mid-term elections. The only real way to change this situation is to change the leadership at the top of the CDC – and the White House.

 

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