We ran the CDC. No president politicized it as Trump has.
As America begins the formidable task of getting our kids back to school and all of us back to work safely amid a pandemic that is only getting worse, public health experts face two opponents: COVID-19, but also political leaders and others attempting to undermine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the debate last week around reopening schools more safely showed, these repeated efforts to subvert sound public health guidelines introduce chaos and uncertainty while unnecessarily putting lives at risk.
As of this date, the CDC guidelines, which were designed to protect children, teachers, school staffers and their families — no matter the state and no matter the politics — have not been altered. It is not unusual for CDC guidelines to be changed or amended during a clearance process that moves through multiple agencies and the White House. But it is extraordinary for guidelines to be undermined after their release.
Through last week, and into Monday, the administration continued to cast public doubt on the agency's recommendations and role in informing and guiding the nation's pandemic response. On Sunday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos characterized the CDC guidelines as an impediment to reopening schools quickly rather than what they are: the path to doing so safely. The only valid reason to change released guidelines is new information and new science — not politics.
One of the many contributions the CDC provides our country is sound public health guidance that states and communities can adapt to their local context; expertise even more essential during a pandemic, when uncertainty is the norm. The four of us led the CDC over a period of more than 15 years, spanning Republican and Democratic administrations alike. We cannot recall over our collective tenure a single time when political pressure led to a change in the interpretation of scientific evidence.
The CDC is home to thousands of experts who for decades have fought deadly pathogens such as HIV, Zika and Ebola. Despite the inevitable challenges of evolving science and the public's expectation of certainty, these are the people best positioned to help our country emerge from this crisis as safely as possible. Unfortunately, their sound science is being challenged with partisan potshots, sowing confusion and mistrust at a time when the American people need leadership, expertise and clarity. These efforts have even fueled a backlash against public health officials across the country: Public servants have been harassed, threatened and forced to resign when we need them most. This is unconscionable and dangerous.
We're seeing the terrible effect of undermining the CDC play out in our population. Willful disregard for public health guidelines is, unsurprisingly, leading to a sharp rise in infections and deaths. America now stands as a global outlier in the coronavirus pandemic. This tragic indictment of our efforts is even more egregious considering the disproportionate impact we've witnessed on communities of color and lower-income essential workers. China, using the same mitigation tools available to us and with a far larger population, has had just a tiny fraction of the 3.1 million cases reported here. The United States now has more cases and deaths than any other country and the sixth-highest rate of any large country in the world — and we are gaining on the other five. The United States is home to a quarter of the world's reported coronavirus infections and deaths, despite being home to only 4.4% of the global population.
Sadly, we are not even close to having the virus under control. Quite the opposite, in fact.
That's what makes it hard to plan for schools. The CDC's guidance is a call for all our nation to work together so as many schools as possible can reopen as safely as possible. This will mean wearing masks correctly, increasing distance — including by closing bars and restaurants in many places — and tracking and stopping the spread of the virus by supporting patients and protecting contacts.
Trying to fight this pandemic while subverting scientific expertise is like fighting blindfolded. It is not too late to give the CDC its proper role in guiding this response. But the clock is ticking.
Frieden directed the CDC from 2009 to 2017 during the H1N1, Ebola and Zika emergencies. Koplan was director from 1998 to 2002. Satcher served as director from 1993 to 1998. Besser was the acting director in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic. They wrote this for the Washington Post.
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