National View: Blame politics for CDC's botched COVID-19 response
From the column: "(The CDC) doubled-down on bad data, bad guidance, and bad decisions ... even in the presence of voluminous contradictory research."
It's been said that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
Maybe that's what Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was looking toward when she conceded last week that the agency she manages botched its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her stunning admission came in reaction to an agency-initiated internal review that found the CDC wanting on multiple levels. The review reportedly found that it "takes too long for CDC to publish its data and science for decision making," that its guidance is "confusing and overwhelming," and that agency staff turnover during the COVID-19 response "created gaps and other challenges for partners."
Some of these failures, Walensky asserted, are a function of poor infrastructure, inadequate staffing and funding, and silos within the agency. In a video message to CDC staff, Walensky echoed the review findings, pointing to the agency's habitually tardy release of relevant data, its muddled messages on virus mitigation measures, and its general inability to respond to public health threats effectively.
The CDC is "responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes," she confessed.
Those are fairly substantial failures for an agency whose primary role is to protect public health. And I won't be the first to assert that funding doesn't have much to do with it.
It was politics, not staffing shortages or a hesitancy to release non-peer-reviewed studies or even bureaucratic failures, that motivated CDC leadership to repeat questionable or inaccurate information — whether on the origin of the virus, its mild impact on children, or the data regarding efficacy of masks and vaccines.
So, in reality, Walensky's admission only confirmed what most Americans have known for a long time. The CDC is now little more than another political entity, one perhaps more interested in following the polls than the science.
To be fair, the organization deserves grace for its performance during the early days of the pandemic, when very little was known about COVID-19. It made sense that early guidance would need to be modified as new information became available.
But the CDC earned no such indulgence when it doubled-down on bad data, bad guidance, and bad decisions in the preceding two and a half years, even in the presence of voluminous contradictory research.
Indeed, the agency's muddled and ever-changing rules were adopted and enforced by many governing entities around the country.
It's why some schools remained closed for months -- longer than in most other parts of the world.
It's why children as young as 2, including those with developmental challenges, were masked, and some remain so.
It's why vaccine mandates that were powerless to stop the virus' spread were put in place in businesses and workplaces.
The devastation caused by those policies (and the guidelines that prompted them) is difficult to quantify. Learning loss, particularly among vulnerable and at-risk student populations, may take decades to recover. There is increasing evidence that young children and even babies have suffered developmental delays during the pandemic; speculation is that social isolation and masking policies are to blame.
And the number of people who lost livelihoods on account of vaccine mandates is only now being fully realized — and legally vindicated, in some cases.
What's interesting about Walensky's admission, though, was the timing. Her call for an overhaul came just days after the CDC walked back its COVID-19 mitigation guidelines, favoring individual discretion over rigid, draconian rules.
For example, it's now viewed as safe for those exposed to the virus to avoid quarantine. There is no distinction between the guidance for unvaccinated and vaccinated people. Screening for those without symptoms has been ruled unnecessary. And, thankfully, students exposed to the virus may remain in class.
It's worth noting that these recommendations were championed by some doctors and disease experts earlier in the pandemic, and they were met with CDC officials' ire.
The rule changes are a quiet concession by the CDC that it was — yet again — wrong.
Of course, for all those suffering from the agency's botched COVID-19 response, these admissions are too little too late. However badly needed an agency overhaul may be, it will not restore the trust of the American public. And there's no telling the long-term consequences of that failure.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at email@example.com.