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Alumni Of Epidemic Intelligence Service Lament 'Silencing' of CDC

Matthias Heyde

A large group of outbreak specialists say there’s been a problematic silencing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during this pandemic. 

More than 600 alumni of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service — including more than 15 who served in the Mountain West — have published an open letter saying they are “concern[ed] about the ominous politicization and silencing of the nation’s health protection agency.”

They say the “CDC should be at the forefront” of the COVID-19 response, rather than having a fragmented response from individual states. And they “urgently call upon the American people to demand — and our nation’s leaders to allow — CDC to resume its indispensable role.” 

Dr. Joe Forrester is originally from Colorado, and during his time in the Epidemic Intelligence Service he returned to the state, for a post with a CDC branch in Fort Collins focused on vector-borne bacterial diseases. There, he worked on Lyme disease, in addition to investigating outbreaks of plague and tularemia. He also traveled to Liberia during the Ebola outbreak there. 

“The people that have signed the letter, among others, are voicing concern about the de-involvement of CDC in what is for almost everyone alive today the largest pandemic that anyone has ever experienced,” he said. 

Forrester says there have been a number of recent moves by the Trump administration that are especially worrisome —including a move last week to sidestep the agency when it comes to sharing data on COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

“I look at that move as but one example of an attempt to limit the opportunities that the CDC has to help protect the American people,” he said. 

Science journalist Maryn McKenna embedded with the EIS for her book, “Beating Back The Devil,” and told Georgia Public Broadcasting that the CDC has had a number of “troubling” absences during the pandemic, ranging from a lack of press briefings to slow data collection. 

“The question of how the data from tests is being kept track of and is being collected and is being posted — that would be a CDC job," McKenna said. "And it just does not seem that they are doing the kind of comprehensive work that they would have done in past outbreaks. And it's quite odd to see that other entities have kind of rushed to fill that gap.” 

McKenna pointed out that Johns Hopkins, The Atlantic and The New York Times are considered the most comprehensive COVID-19 data trackers, when it should be the CDC.

Dr. Philip Lederer served in the EIS from 2012 to 2014, during which time he worked on diseases including HIV/AIDS and the MERS coronavirus outbreak, working everywhere from Atlanta, Georgia, to Mozambique and Namibia. He said the letter has been gaining traction, jumping from about 360 signatures to more than 600 over the past week.

Lederer and others wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times in June that the CDC has been “underfunded for decades” and "must be funded appropriately, charged with leading the Covid-19 response and also with addressing the health inequities unmasked by this global pandemic.”

In the open letter, the EIS alumni said, “The absence of national leadership on COVID-19 is unprecedented and dangerous,” resulting in “chaos” and a fragmented local response. “We urgently call upon the American people to demand and our nation’s leaders to allow CDC to resume its indispensable role.” 

Last week, four previous CDC directors echoed the sentiment in a piece in the Washington Post, saying this level of politicizing public health is unprecedented.

“It is not too late to give the CDC its proper role in guiding this response,” they wrote. “But the clock is ticking.” 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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