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How the CDC’s handling of COVID-19 impacted American public health

  • March 14: Last CDC media telebriefing on COVID-19

    The CDC’s regular media telebriefs on COVID-19 that began on Jan. 17 ended on March 13 without explanation. CDC’s lack of direct communication to the public has raised red flags with public health experts: Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NPR the fact that the CDC is not participating in public briefings is a departure from how the nation’s public health agency has always dealt with epidemics in the past.

    Former CDC director Tom Frieden said, “Fighting this pandemic without CDC central to that fight is like fighting it with one hand tied behind your back," reported NPR.

    Editor's note: On May 30, the CDC announced that it would restart regular COVID-19 briefings as the death toll from the virus reached more than 103,000. 

  • March-April: No data standards instituted across state health departments

    As the CDC continued to not publish a count of how many Americans had been tested for COVID-19, the responsibility for reporting this crucial public health metric was left on the shoulders of state health departments, each of which operated under its own data standards.

    Some states published only their counts of positive cases; others published counts of total tests conducted or tests that yielded a negative result. Some states published counts of their citizens who were hospitalized due to COVID-19; others did not. Some states updated their counts every day; others updated less frequently. Some states reported their total tests in a unit of people tested; others reported in a unit of specimens tested (including duplicates for people who were tested more than once). All of these data differences have made it difficult for public health officials at both the local and national levels to determine the scale of outbreaks in different areas, allocate resources, and predict potential outcomes.

  • March 15: CDC warns against holding large events

    The CDC’s large-event guidelines included a list of considerations that might warrant postponement or cancellation, such as the number of guests and whether elderly people or other at-risk groups will be in attendance. If attendees were considered healthy and of a non-risk age, the CDC recommended capping such events at 250 people. On the same day, the total number of cases in the U.S. passed 5,000, according to historical data from the COVID Tracking Project.

  • Mid-March: FDA loosens regulations on COVID-19 test kits

    As testing demand increased across the country in March, private biotech companies sought to fill the gap left by government public health departments. As of May 28, the FDA has approved 82 diagnostic tests that can be used to test for COVID-19. One recent addition is an at-home test kit by the health company Everlywell, approved on May 15.


  • Late March: CDC advises against masks for the general public

    In the early months of the U.S.’s outbreak, public health officials, including CDC leaders, advised Americans against wearing masks unless they experienced COVID-19 symptoms or worked in health care settings. Masks were limited, officials explained, and should be conserved for people who needed them, especially as strained supply chains and high numbers of patients in COVID-19 hot spots such as New York City caused masks to go in short supply for health care workers for those locations. However, conflicting information from different sources and growing evidence that the coronavirus can spread through the air caused widespread confusion about who should wear a mask and why.

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  • March 26: US passes 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19

    While formal counts of deaths due to COVID-19 passed 1,000 at the end of March, this figure only reflects the deaths of Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Many public health researchers estimate that the true cost of this outbreak may be much higher, as thousands of Americans may have passed away without receiving a test or failed to receive medical attention for a different condition as health care systems have been overburdened.

    According to estimates from the New York Times, about 16,000 deaths in the U.S. went unattributed from March 15 to April 25; while many of these deaths may be unrelated to COVID-19, the figure provides a sense of scale for the true toll.

  • March 28: CDC issues travel advisory for tri-state area

    By the end of March, New York City had become a clear epicenter for America’s COVID-19 outbreak. On March 28, the day that the CDC advised residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to avoid domestic travel for two weeks, the state of New York had a total of about 52,000 cases and over 700 deaths due to COVID-19, according to historical data from the COVID Tracking Project. China placed 15 cities under full or partial lockdown in late January, when under 3,000 cases were confirmed across the country.

  • April 3: CDC changes guidelines on masks

    As COVID-19 continued to spread through the U.S., public health researchers saw mounting evidence that people infected with the coronavirus could spread it to others even if they showed no symptoms of the disease. Due to the danger of asymptomatic spread, the CDC issued a recommendation on April 3 guiding Americans to wear masks in public settings, even if they have not tested positive for COVID-19 or experienced any symptoms. The CDC recommends that members of the public wear reusable cloth masks, in order to reserve surgical masks and N-95 respirators for health care workers and other frontline workers.

  • April 3: CDC begins releasing weekly COVID-19 surveillance report

    Tagged “COVIDView,” the CDC’s weekly surveillance report was created to present and explain information about COVID-19. This information included everything from lab data to emergency department visits. In the first week, COVIDView highlighted data on visits to doctors and emergency rooms for symptoms that are similar to those associated with COVID-19.

    Visits to outpatient providers and emergency departments for illnesses with symptom presentation similar to COVID-19 are elevated compared to what is normally seen at this time of year. At this time, there is little influenza (flu) virus circulation.

  • April: Public health experts call for CDC to clean up its act

    “Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC has been inexplicably absent, and Americans are suffering and dying for it,” wrote Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, in a STAT News essay that reflects the views of many other public health scientists and officials. Jha argued that, while the CDC has long provided local health departments with guidance and standards, which enabled national research on different diseases and conditions impacting the nation, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency has failed in its duty. He pointed out issues with CDC-led testing and data reporting, as well as a lack of evidence-based guidance in the agency’s decisions.

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