How the CDC’s handling of COVID-19 impacted American public health
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was founded in 1947 following a successful National Malaria Control Program during World War II. The new branch of the U.S. Public Health Service was headquartered in Atlanta because of the prevalence of malaria throughout the South, as the agency wished to focus on preventing this disease’s spread. In its first several years in existence, the organization sprayed around 6.5 million homes with DDT as a means to achieve its goal.
The organization continued its complex history from there; with major milestones such as significantly reducing childhood morbidity rates and acquisitions of various other services and programs that expanded the organization’s reach and role in American public health.
The CDC today, staffed by more than 50,000 people, has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for its mishandling of COVID-19, from the organization’s lax initial response to its bungling of viral tests (and access to tests). To get a better understanding of the CDC’s role amid the novel coronavirus pandemic—and how its response has affected American public health—Stacker compiled a list of 35 major events that highlight the CDC’s responses to COVID-19, focusing on news reports and public health sources.
Keep reading to find out what went wrong with early tests, how test results are being skewed, and how insufficient testing rates have left citizens and governmental leaders in the dark about how and when regions and states can safely reopen.
May 2018: White House pandemic response team disbands
Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, a top official on the National Security Council for U.S. pandemic response, left the Trump administration early May 2018, and members of his team were reassigned. Though NSC spokesman Robert Palladino said the administration was committed to global health, they did not replace Ziemer, meaning there was no top-level global health security official after the exit.
Spring 2019: Congress does not allocate significant CDC budget to emerging diseases
Although the CDC was granted a $7.3 billion budget in 2019—$2.5 to $3 billion of which was for infectious disease—the majority was “earmarked for existing pathogens,” per Michelle Minton of Inside Sources, leaving the organization vastly underprepared and underfunded for the current pandemic. The $855 million for “public health preparedness and response programs,” was “mostly a conduit for transferring federal funds...to state agencies during emergencies like natural disasters,” and that of the $600 million for emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, “only $185 million went toward the emerging type—like COVID-19.”
Jan. 17, 2020: CDC begins screening travelers from Wuhan
In January 2020, still two months from the WHO’s “pandemic” designation, the CDC said in a press release that “the risk from 2019-nCoV to the American public is currently deemed to be low.” In an early precautionary measure taken jointly along with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol, three U.S. airports (JFK, LAX, SFO) began health screenings of travelers from Wuhan.
Jan. 17: First CDC media telebriefing on COVID-19
That same day, the CDC held its first COVID-19 telebriefing. In the nascent stages of what they called an “outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan,” the CDC explained the “large family of viruses” known as coronavirus and that the first related respiratory illness had been reported Dec. 30, 2019. They referenced past action with MERS and SARS, though the word “pandemic” was never used.
Jan. 21: First COVID-19 case in the US
Only four days after the briefing—and 10 days after China’s first death—a man in his 30s became the first U.S. case after he returned to Washington state from Wuhan. At this time, nearly 300 people in Asia had tested positive for the disease, including early cases in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand.
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Jan. 29: WH forms the President's Coronavirus Task Force
The White House finally took action, forming the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Per a release, it planned to “lead the Administration’s efforts to monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the virus, while ensuring that the American people have the most accurate and up-to-date health and travel information.”
Curiously leaving out any CDC members save for director Dr. Robert Redfield, the task force was helmed by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and introduced Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, into the public consciousness.
January: CDC does not use WHO COVID-19 tests, develops its own
According to a March BBC report, “The US declined to use a test approved by the World Health Organization in January—instead, the CDC developed its own coronavirus test.” As a consequence of manufacturing defects in these CDC tests, moreover, “many of the results were inconclusive.”
In April, a federal investigation confirmed the faulty CDC tests had been contaminated with the coronavirus itself, making it impossible for them to determine the status of a sample.
February: Faulty CDC tests create weeks-long delays at a crucial time
Essential weeks were lost early in the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. because, in creating its own test that was faulty, the test didn’t work in the vast majority of labs. That meant a delay from the beginning to the end of February whereby only a handful of labs (where the tests were working properly) could use tests while the virus spread unchecked throughout the United States.
Early February: CDC restricts ability of private labs to test for COVID-19
The first CDC test kits were sent out to state and local government labs. Similar facilities at many universities and private companies prepared their equipment and staff to process COVID-19 tests, but they did not receive the necessary supplies or permissions until weeks later. Restricting the test kits to public labs caused further delays in building a widespread testing system.
Feb. 13: CDC does not keep track of potential COVID-19 cases
From January to March, the CDC had a chronic organizational issue that included losing multiple forms from agencies reporting on COVID-19 cases. In a Feb. 13 email, a CDC worker characterized job openings as an “URGENT” needs; those jobs included “Identifying missing PUI [persons under investigation] forms for follow up and contacting states to resend missing forms—this is an ongoing issue for new and past PUIs.”