Can the Center for Disease Control ever be Fixed?
Covid-19 has shown the glaring weaknesses of the world’s premier public health agency — and just how much work it would take to reform it.
Jeneen Interlandi* commentaries by Robert Gorter**, MD, PhD.
June 16th, 2021
In November 2020, an independent team of academics and public-health experts who called themselves the Covid Rapid Response Working Group gathered on Zoom to puzzle over what had by then become the pandemic’s most vexing challenge: how to make all schools safe for full-time, in-person learning as quickly as possible. Schools had not proved to be a hotbed of coronavirus transmission, but beyond that the research was complicated, and communities were divided about how to balance the risks. Some people wanted a full reopening, immediately, with no exceptions. Others were terrified to return at all.
So far, there was no national plan for how to move forward. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising everyone to wear masks and remain six feet apart at all times. But that guidance was a significant impediment to any full-bore reopening because most schools could not maintain that kind of distance and still accommodate all their students and teachers. It also left many questions unanswered: How did masks and distancing and other strategies like opening windows fit together? Which were essential? Could some measures be skipped if others were followed faithfully?
The C.D.C. seemed incapable of answering these questions. From the pandemic’s earliest days, the agency had been subject to extreme politicization and troubled by what looked, at least from the outside, like pathological clumsiness. Scientists, there had been far too slow to detect the virus, to develop an accurate diagnostic test for it, or to grasp how fast it was mutating. Their advisories on mask-wearing, quarantine, and ventilation had been confusing, inconsistent, and occasionally dead wrong. And during the Trump administration, agency leaders stood by while politicians and political appointees repeatedly undermined the agency’s staff. Scientific reports were blocked or altered. Quarantine powers were used to achieve political goals. Dangerous strategies for controlling the virus were not only promoted but actively employed.