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

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

WASHINGTON — Americans returning from China landed at U.S. airports by the thousands in early February, potential carriers of a deadly virus who had been diverted to a handful of cities for screening by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Their arrival prompted a frantic scramble by local and state officials to press the travelers to self-quarantine, and to monitor whether anyone fell ill. It was one of the earliest tests of whether the public health system in the United States could contain the contagion.

But the effort was frustrated as the C.D.C.’s decades-old notification system delivered information collected at the airports that was riddled with duplicative records, bad phone numbers and incomplete addresses. For weeks, officials tried to track passengers using lists sent by the C.D.C., scouring information about each flight in separate spreadsheets.

“It was insane,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, a director at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. When the system went offline in mid-February, briefly halting the flow of passenger data, local officials listened in disbelief on a conference call as the C.D.C. responded to the possibility that infected travelers might slip away.

“Just let them go,” two of the health officials recall being told.

The flawed effort was an early revelation for some health departments, whose confidence in the C.D.C. was shaken as it confronted the most urgent public health emergency in its 74-year history — a pathogen that has penetrated much of the nation, killing more than 100,000 people.

The C.D.C., long considered the world’s premier health agency, made early testing mistakes that contributed to a cascade of problems that persist today as the country tries to reopen. It failed to provide timely counts of infections and deaths, hindered by aging technology and a fractured public health reporting system. And it hesitated in absorbing the lessons of other countries, including the perils of silent carriers spreading the infection.

The agency struggled to calibrate its own imperative to be cautious and the need to move fast as the coronavirus ravaged the country, according to a review of thousands of emails and interviews with more than 100 state and federal officials, public health experts, C.D.C. employees and medical workers. In communicating to the public, its leadership was barely visible, its stream of guidance was often slow and its messages were sometimes confusing, sowing mistrust.

“They let us down,” said Dr. Stephane Otmezguine, an anesthesiologist who treated coronavirus patients in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Richard Whitley, the top health official in Nevada, wrote to the C.D.C. director about a communication “breakdown” between the states and the agency. Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois lashed out at the agency over testing, saying that the government’s response would “go down in history as a profound failure.”

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“The C.D.C. is no longer the reliable go-to place,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Even as the virus tested the C.D.C.’s capacity to respond, the agency and its director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, faced unprecedented challenges from President Trump, who repeatedly wished away the pandemic. His efforts to seize the spotlight from the public health agency reflected the broader patterns of his erratic presidency: public condemnations on Twitter, a tendency to dismiss findings from scientists, inconsistent policy or decision-making and a suspicion that the “deep state” inside the government is working to force him out of office.

Mr. Trump and his top aides have grown increasingly bitter about perceived leaks from the C.D.C. they say were designed to embarrass the president and to build support for decisions that ignore broader concerns about the country’s vast social and economic dislocation. At the same time, some at the C.D.C. have bristled at what they see as pressure to bend evidence-based recommendations to help Mr. Trump’s political standing.

Located in Atlanta, the C.D.C. is encharged with protecting the nation against public health threats — from anthrax to obesity — and serving as the unassailable source of information about fighting them. Given its record and resources, the agency might have become the undisputed leader in the global fight against the virus.

Instead, the C.D.C. made missteps that undermined America’s response.

“Here is an agency that has been waiting its entire existence for this moment,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, a former associate commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration who for years worked closely with the C.D.C. “And then they flub it. It is very sad. That is what they were set up to do.”

The agency’s allies say it is just one part of a vast network of state and local health departments, hospitals, government agencies and suppliers that were collectively unprepared for the speed, scope and ferocity of the pandemic. They also point out that lawmakers have long failed to adequately prioritize funding for the kind of crisis the country now faces.

Dr. Amy Ray, an infectious disease specialist in Cleveland, said the C.D.C. did not “get enough credit,” adding, “They are learning at the same time the world is learning, by watching how this disease manifests.”

The agency, which declined repeated requests for interviews with its top officials, said in a statement: “C.D.C. is at the table as part of the larger U.S. government response, providing the best, most current data and scientific understanding we have.”

“It’s important to remember that this is a global emergency — and it’s impacting the entire U.S.,” the agency said. “That means it requires an all-of-government response.”

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Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

In early March, Dr. Redfield led Mr. Trump on a V.I.P. tour of the high-tech labs at the C.D.C.’s Atlanta headquarters, standing off to the side as the president spoke.

Wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap, Mr. Trump falsely asserted that “anybody that wants a test can get a test,” claimed he had a “natural ability” for science and noted that he might keep holding campaign rallies even as the virus spread.

“Thank you for your decisive leadership in helping us, you know, put public health first,” Dr. Redfield told the president as they posed for the cameras.

The moment underscored the challenge for the director and his agency. To combat the virus, he would have to manage the mercurial demands of the president who appointed him and the expectations of the career scientists he leads.

The sensibilities could not be more different. At one point that month, White House officials asked the agency to provide feedback on possible logos — including “Make America Healthy Again” — for cloth face masks they hoped to distribute to millions of Americans. The plan fell through, but not before C.D.C. leaders agreed to the request, according to one person familiar with the discussions.

White House aides saw Dr. Redfield, 68, as an ally, but as the coronavirus crisis intensified, his meandering manner in television appearances and congressional hearings irritated a president drawn to big personalities and assertive defenders of his administration.

A former military virologist who specialized in H.I.V., Dr. Redfield was Mr. Trump’s second choice after his first C.D.C. director resigned. He had no experience leading a government agency — though he had been considered for jobs in previous Republican administrations — and often told associates that he was happiest treating patients in Africa or Haiti.

Dr. Robert C. Gallo, who founded the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine with Dr. Redfield in 1996, said he had warned him against taking the C.D.C. post, describing it as “massive public health, lots of politics, lots of pressure.”

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

While praising his friend as “a terrific, dedicated infectious disease doctor,” Dr. Gallo, who also co-founded the Global Virus Network, said in an interview that Dr. Redfield “can’t do anything communication-wise.” He added, “He’s reticent, never wanting the front of anything — maybe it’s extreme humility.”

The C.D.C., established in the 1940s to control malaria in the South, has the feel of an academic institution. There, experts work “at the speed of science — you take time doing it,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

The agency, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services with 11,000 employees, cannot make policy, but it guides federal and state public health systems and advises government leaders.

The C.D.C.’s most fabled experts are the disease detectives of its Epidemic Intelligence Service, rapid responders who investigate outbreaks. But more broadly, according to current and former employees and others who worked closely with the agency, the C.D.C. is risk-averse, perfectionist and ill suited to improvising in a quickly evolving crisis — particularly one that shuts down the country and paralyzes the economy.

“It’s not our culture to intervene,” said Dr. George Schmid, who worked at the agency off and on for nearly four decades. He described it as increasingly bureaucratic, weighed down by “indescribable, burdensome hierarchy.”

The exacting culture shaped its scientists’ ambitions; it also locked some into a fixed way of thinking, former officials said. And it helped produce the C.D.C.’s most consequential failure in the crisis: its inability early on to provide state laboratories around the country with an effective diagnostic test.

The C.D.C. quickly developed a successful test in January designed to be highly precise, but it was more complicated to use and turned out to be no better than versions produced overseas. And in manufacturing test kits to send to the states, the C.D.C. contaminated many of them through sloppy lab practices. That, along with the administration’s failure to quickly ramp up commercial and academic labs, delayed the rollout of tests and limited their availability for months.

In late January, the agency sent epidemiologists to Seattle to help local health officials learn whether what was then the country’s first known patient — a 35-year-old man who had visited Wuhan, China — had infected others.

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

After an initial round of tests, the agency imposed restrictive testing standards. When doctors in Washington State and elsewhere forwarded the names of about 650 people in January who might have been infected — they had contact with a confirmed patient, had been admitted to a hospital or had other risk factors — the C.D.C. agreed to test only 256. That group consisted primarily of people traveling from Wuhan and their contacts.

In part because of capacity issues, the agency typically did not recommend testing people without symptoms — even though Chinese doctors were reporting that people could spread the virus without ever feeling ill. Dr. Redfield mentioned the possibility of asymptomatic spread in a CNN interview in February, but the C.D.C. did not emphasize such transmission until late March.

In mid-February, C.D.C. officials announced plans for a national surveillance effort — by testing samples from people with flulike symptoms — to determine whether the virus was spreading undetected. The effort was to begin in Seattle, New York and three other cities, but after disagreements over how to proceed, it did not start.

Later that month, public health officials across the country were increasingly concerned about visitors streaming into the United States from South Korea, Japan, Italy and other European countries engulfed by the virus.

On phone calls with the C.D.C., worried state officials kept asking: “Are there plans to expand the travel monitoring?” The response, according to a participant from New York, was always the same: “We’re still actively considering that.”

Mr. Trump announced a European travel ban on March 11, a few days after meeting with Dr. Redfield and others. But it was too late. Genomic tracing would later show that European travelers had brought the virus into New York as early as mid-February; it multiplied there and elsewhere in the country. In Seattle, a strain from China had struck nursing homes in late February.

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Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

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 more a 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.

He has not been in Atlanta recently, shuttling instead between his home in Baltimore and the West Wing. One person familiar with his thinking described Dr. Redfield as feeling “a little bit on an island.”

The C.D.C. still has many defenders who say it has done the best it could battling a stealthy, previously unknown virus. “When they do release something, it does what C.D.C. ought to do — retain the voice of credibility,” said Dr. James A. Town, medical director of the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. “Even if it’s coming at a slower pace, which can be frustrating, I think they’re pretty thoughtful and trying to make even-keeled investigations.”

Dr. Redfield declined to comment for this article. But in a recent interview with The Hill, he said, “I would say C.D.C. has never been stronger.”

In a briefing last week, he acknowledged that the nation must work to improve its systems to track disease outbreaks, though he disputed that the agency was somehow unable to detect when the coronavirus started to spread in the United States. “We were never really blind to the introduction of this virus,” he said.

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Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Inside Building 21, the C.D.C.’s gleaming 12-story headquarters, nothing has been more critical than getting fast, accurate information on how the virus is spreading, who is getting sick, how best to treat them and how quickly the country can reopen.

But that has proved difficult for the agency’s antiquated data systems, many of which rely on information assembled by or shared with local health officials through phone calls, faxes and thousands of spreadsheets attached to emails. The data is not integrated, comprehensive or robust enough, with some exceptions, to depend on in real time.

The C.D.C. could not produce accurate counts of how many people were being tested, compile complete demographic information on confirmed cases or even keep timely tallies of deaths. Backups on at least some of these systems are made on recordable DVDs, a technology that was state-of-the-art in the late 1990s.

The result is an agency that had blind spots at just the wrong moment, limited in its ability to gather and process information about the pathogen or share it with those who needed it most: front-line medical workers, government health officials and policymakers.

“That specific, granular data has huge implications,” said Julie Fischer, a professor of microbiology at Georgetown University who studies community preparedness for emerging diseases. “We lost precious time in decision-making and putting public health resources to use.”

When C.D.C. officials urged states to track travelers from China in February for possible infection, the agency turned to a computer network called Epi-X. It sent emails to state officials, one at a time, for each arriving flight so they could download a list of targeted passengers.

In California, state health officers received as many as 146 notification emails a day, forcing them to spend time forwarding them to the appropriate local health departments. In some cases, the information, collected for the C.D.C. by the Department of Homeland Security, listed incorrect dates or times; in other cases, passenger data was sent to the wrong state or came more than a week after the travelers had entered the United States.

“We got crappy data,” said Fran Phillips, Maryland’s deputy health secretary. “We would call them up and people would say, ‘Well, I was in China, but that was three years ago.’”

On Feb. 11, Mr. Whitley, Nevada’s top health official, complained to Dr. Redfield in a letter about “the breakdown” in “communication the states have received from the C.D.C.” The agency had said three travelers from China could “go along with their normal day-to-day business” — advice that conflicted with the C.D.C.’s message to monitor such passengers and make sure they were in self-quarantine.

One week later, the C.D.C.’s Epi-X system stopped sending notices entirely, even though flights kept coming. The agency had temporarily shut the system down to “improve data quality,” it told state officials in an email.

The travel-monitoring program screened at least 268,000 passengers through mid-April. A C.D.C. report cited 14 Covid cases that were traced back to those passengers, but lapses and errors in the data made that tally far from conclusive. The agency went on to say that the program did not stop the disease from being introduced to California, where incomplete information, high travel volume and the possibility of asymptomatic spread made it ineffective.

Once coronavirus cases started developing in earnest in the United States in March, federal and state officials began demanding information to make key decisions. Among them: where to move ventilators from the national stockpile and where to build temporary hospitals.

State and local officials were quickly overwhelmed trying to document hospitals’ needs. Staff at the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, for example, called each of the 94 county hospitals in the early weeks of the outbreak, asking nurses how many coronavirus patients were in intensive care units and how many were on ventilators.

The C.D.C. tried to repurpose one of its data systems to collect the information directly from hospitals, but it had significant gaps. Finally, the Department of Health and Human Services in April also enlisted a private contractor, TeleTracking Technologies, only to have hospitals struggle to log on to the system.

Hospital executives resorted to finding aid themselves. Scott Malaney, head of Blanchard Valley Health System in Ohio, got a phone call from an official at a Michigan health care system that was running short on beds and equipment. It was asking neighboring facilities to share supplies or take in overflow patients if necessary.

“She said they were looking up the phone book up and down Highway 75 to see if there were other places that could help,” Mr. Malaney recalled.

The disconnects in the public health record-keeping system delayed sharing critical data that could help patients, said Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Hospitals look to the C.D.C. for that information. “Is it higher risk to be a healthy person at age 75 with coronavirus or a diabetic with the disease at age 45?” Dr. Inglesby said. “We should have the data to know the answer to this question quickly, and we should be using it to make better decisions.”

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Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

As the number of suspected cases — and deaths — mounted, the C.D.C. struggled to record them accurately. The agency rushed to hire extra workers to process incoming emails from hospitals. Still, many officials turned to Johns Hopkins University, which became the primary source for up-to-date counts. Even the White House cited its numbers instead of the C.D.C.’s lagging tallies.

Some staff members were mortified when a Seattle teenager managed to compile coronavirus data faster than the agency itself, creating a website that attracted millions of daily visitors. “If a high schooler can do it, someone at C.D.C. should be able to do it,” said one longtime employee.

For years, federal and state governments have not invested enough money to insure that the nation’s public health system would have critical data needed to respond in a pandemic. Since 2010, for example, grants to help hospitals and states prepare for emergencies have declined.

In 2019, more than 100 public health groups pressed congressional leaders to allocate $1 billion over a decade to upgrade the infrastructure. The C.D.C. received $50 million toward the effort this year. Then, as coronavirus cases and deaths mounted in March, the federal government committed to $500 million under the emergency CARES Act.

“The crisis has highlighted the need to continue efforts to modernize the public health data systems that C.D.C. and states rely on,” Dr. Redfield told a Senate committee on May 12. “Timely and accurate data are essential as C.D.C. and the nation work to understand the impact of Covid-19 on all Americans.”

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Data is one of the essential tools of public health; Mr. Trump, though, often appears to see it as a weapon against him. He has suggested that testing is “overrated” and that it makes the United States look bad by increasing the number of confirmed cases. He has seized on lower-end projections of the virus’s toll, only to see them eclipsed as the cases and deaths rose.

Recently, the C.D.C. drew criticism after media reports disclosed that in tracking how many Americans had been tested, the agency had breached standard practice by combining data from antibody tests, which can indicate past infections, with diagnostic tests. The agency said it was caused by confusion in overworked state and local health officials reporting results, but the mistake muddied the picture of the pandemic.

“The scientists at the C.D.C. are still great,” Dr. Jha said. “It’s very puzzling to all of us why C.D.C. performance has been so poor.”

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Late in the evening on March 15, the C.D.C. put a bold statement on its website: All gatherings of more than 50 people should be canceled, the agency said, effectively calling for an end to large public events.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.