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The C.D.C. Waited ‘Its Entire Existence for This Moment.’ What Went Wrong?

  • June 03, 2020

If we were able to test early, we would have recognized earlier” the scale of the outbreak, said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the chief health officer in King County, Wash. “We would have been able to put prevention measures in place earlier and had fewer cases.”

Part of the C.D.C.’s start-up troubles, current and former employees said, was that the group in charge of the response initially — the Division of Viral Diseases — is smaller and has far less staff focused on contagious respiratory diseases than the C.D.C.’s Influenza Division, which eventually took a more leading role. “They were very quickly overwhelmed by what they had to do,” said Dr. Pierre Rollin, a virologist who left last year.

Now, more than 3,000 C.D.C. employees are aiding the coronavirus response, analyzing data, performing lab work and deploying to cities where local health departments need help. While other federal agencies are also involved — including the F.D.A., which has speeded the use of antibody tests; the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has worked to get ventilators and other supplies; and the National Institutes of Health, which has studied vaccines and possible treatments — the C.D.C. is the reigning expert.

Even before the current crisis, Dr. Redfield had kept a low profile. Some days he could be spotted in a corner of the cafeteria, sipping coffee alone.

Although he is on the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Redfield found himself eclipsed by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s most famous infectious disease specialist, and Dr. Deborah Birx, an AIDS expert and former C.D.C. physician.

Meanwhile, his bonds with some of his own staff have frayed. One associate recounted him saying that the agency’s scientists had a “myopic” view of their roles, and characterized his relationship with his top deputy, Dr. Anne Schuchat, a career C.D.C. scientist deeply respected in the agency, as growing strained.

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