More Than 1,000 CDC Officials Ask: Why Bench the CDC During a Pandemic?

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Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wears a protective mask during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing on July 31, 2020.
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wears a protective mask during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing on July 31, 2020.
Photo: Erin Scott / Pool (Getty Images)

In an open letter published this week, 1,044 former and current officers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, a renowned fellowship program that focuses on research and emergency response, expressed concern over the diminished role of the public health agency during the coronavirus pandemic. The letter had one clear demand: Take the CDC off the bench.

The letter, published in the journal Epidemiology Monitor, was written by physicians, nurses, scientists and other health professionals that 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 provided the best available information and recommendations to the public. In addition, it also gathered and applied research from scientists at the agency and worldwide.


But that CDC is hardly recognizable today, the former and current agency officers write. They further state that there has been an “ominous politicization and silencing of the nation’s health protection agency” during the covid-19 pandemic.

“The absence of national leadership on covid-19 is unprecedented and dangerous,” the letter states. “The U.S. epidemic is sustained by deadly chains of transmission that crisscross the entire country. Yet states and territories have been left to invent their own differing systems for defining, diagnosing and reporting cases of this highly contagious disease. Inconsistent contact tracing efforts are confined within each state’s borders—while coronavirus infections sadly are not.”


This situation, the letter states, is “chaos,” something the CDC in the past has been able to avoid by collaborating with state and local health authorities to develop national systems for disease surveillance and coordinated control.

“CDC should be at the forefront of a successful response to this global public health emergency,” the former and current CDC officers write. “We urgently call upon the American people to demand and our nation’s leaders to allow CDC to resume its indispensable role.”


Up to now, that role has been, undoubtedly, all over the place, and certainly not on the front lines. From being bullied into supporting President Donald Trump’s push to reopen schools to recommending against the testing of asymptomatic people that had been exposed to the virus (which it later walked back), the agency has not been the beacon of science and security we expect it to be during a pandemic.

However, to be fair to the CDC, the dysfunction it currently finds itself in is directly related to the hot mess that is the Trump administration, which has reportedly been meddling with the CDC’s guidance and public communications. It’s also hard to provide the best recommendations to the public, such as the absolute necessity of wearing face masks to reduce virus transmission, when the country’s president makes fun of his Democratic opponent for wearing a mask. (If you all recall, 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 the powers that be—also known as the Trump administration—to let the CDC do its job and protect Americans. But although it may now fall on deaf ears, there is an election coming up. If Biden wins, it’s very likely that this letter would matter to his future administration, and that the CDC would see its role changed.

We’ll have to wait and see.