More than 1,000 current and former officers of an elite disease control program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have signed an open letter expressing dismay at the country’s public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic and urging the federal agency to play a more central role.
“The absence of national leadership on Covid-19 is unprecedented and dangerous,” said the letter, signed by current and former officers of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service of outbreak investigators. “The CDC must be at the forefront of a successful response to this global public health crisis.”
Signatories included two former CDC directors: Jeffrey Koplan, who headed the agency under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and Tom Frieden, who served under President Barack Obama.
All signatories wrote to “express our concern at the ominous politicization and silencing of the nation̵
“The CDC has today, as it has done every day throughout its 74-year history, provided the best available information and recommendations to the American public,” the agency said in a response to the letter. “Since January, more than 5,200 CDC employees have dedicated themselves to protecting the health of the American people.”
The CDC, long regarded as the world’s leading public health agency, usually plays a leading role globally in responding to epidemics.
The Trump administration has at times been deeply involved in drafting scientific recommendations at the CDC during the pandemic, raising objections to guidelines for reopening churches and schools and for wearing masks, The Wall Street Journal reported. A spokesman for the administration has said the president referred to the Coronavirus Task Force in the White House to ensure that communications were examined by administration officials “for accuracy, efficiency and safety in protecting public health.”
Confidence has been eroded in the agency, a recent poll shows. Former Agency officials and other public health personnel have spoken out in defense of the CDC, arguing the need to resume its leading and scientific role leading the nation’s pandemic defense.
EIS is, as is well known, a two-year scholarship at the CDC, where officers develop disease detective chops as they fight on the front lines against outbreaks such as Ebola, E. coli and other dangerous pathogens.
The letter was “an expression of solidarity among our society,” said Charles Rabkin, a medical epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute and a member of the EIS class in 1984. He said he spent several months contacting each EIS class that spans over nearly seven decades, to collect signatures for the letter.
The 1,044 who signed the letter make up more than 25% of current and former EIS officers dating back to first class in 1951, he said. They include current CDC staff who either now work as EIS officers or members of classes dating back to the 1980s, he said.
Douglas Hamilton, a member of the EIS class in 1991, said he signed the letter because he was concerned about protecting the CDC’s scientific credibility. “We have seen massive spin or even rewriting of CDC recommendations,” said Dr. Hamilton, who retired from the CDC earlier this year.
The CDC’s recommendations and leadership are critical to helping often underutilized state and local health departments respond effectively in a pandemic, said Jeanette Stehr-Green, a public health consultant in Port Angeles, Wash., Who signed the letter.
Dr. Stehr-Green, a member of the EIS class in 1984, said her team of 40 volunteer contact trackers became confused about who should test for Covid-19 after the CDC withdrew its recommendations in August for who to test and said people who had no symptoms did not need to be tested even if they were in contact with a case.
After discussing the matter, the team decided to continue testing, Dr. Stehr-Green. The CDC later reversed the course and now says asymptomatic contacts should be tested.
“A number of steps like that have disturbed us in doing the best work we can,” said Dr. Stehr-Green, who has worked for the CDC as well as state and local health departments. “The CDC has written the book on epidemic preparedness and how to respond. Their expertise has been ignored to the detriment of us all. ”
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