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The United States is “less safe” from the coronavirus when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not communicating regularly with the American public, a former director of the agency said Monday.

“I think it’s crucial we hear from CDC,” Tom Frieden, now the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an advocacy group, told STAT when asked about the agency’s muted public profile in recent weeks.

The CDC’s last public briefing was March 9. Since then, there have been regular briefings at the White House by President Trump and top aides, including the CDC’s director. But the agency’s top infectious disease specialists are not briefing the public directly.

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Frieden said the CDC has continued to serve a vital role during the Covid-19 pandemic, doing “extensive work” and publishing research findings. He also suggested that the agency’s top officials tried to sound the alarm about the virus early, noting that Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Jan. 26 that the country needed to be preparing as if it was facing a pandemic. A few weeks later, she warned that disruptions to daily life could be “severe.”

“Think back to that Jan. 26 quotation — how much better off we would be if we were prepared for physical distancing, if we had begun the production of test kits and personalized protective equipment at that time,” Frieden said, speaking in a video chat with STAT reporter Helen Branswell.

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At this point, Frieden said, ending the national lockdown now will not be easy. But he said “this is not a time to wait, this is a time to work.”

He said health officials right now are trying to “box in” the virus. That box, he said, has four corners: widespread diagnostic testing to detect the virus; the ability to safely isolate all infected people; the ability to find all people who have been exposed; and quarantining those exposed people.

“If any one of those four sides is weak, the virus will escape, will get out, and will spread widely in society,” he said. “That’s why right now, as we’re sheltering in place, we need to be urgently preparing for the next phase of the battle.”

Frieden generally warned to be cautious about technological solutions. Tracing who has been exposed to the virus could require an army of as many as 300,000 people. Quarantined and sick people may need to be given food, or hotel rooms. Technological solutions, such as tracking people’s smartphones, may help, but cannot replace the old-fashioned shoe leather effort of sending human beings out to ask people who they have been in contact with.

He also acknowledged that current tests to detect the presence of the virus can result in false negatives, in part because it is difficult to stick a long swab deep into the nose and then swirl it around to get a good sample. And serology tests, designed to detect antibodies that reveal past infection and possible immunity, vary in quality. Many of them are “junk” he said, and predicted an explosion of such tests, followed by a winnowing based on how well they work.

Watch the whole interview below.

  • When the numbers are compiled on most sites other than CDC they simply quote deaths as by Virus. Many of these deaths as we all know are not tested when someone has died and they have never been tested. I am not sure what criteria the CDC uses but it appears they do have a column for unknown.

  • No the CDC specialists should not be directly speaking to the public. Their view though important from a medical perspective, is still a myopic, tunnel vision interpretation. The economic consequences are likely to be much more damaging than the virus itself, and so the President working with the Governors should call the shots.

    • CDC compiles, disseminates, conducts and oversees research. As an agency of the executive, it advises the President who must call the shots with ramifications far beyond CDC expertise. Had this been an avian flu which kills 6 out of 10, smooth PR and social engineering would have fiddled right through a rapid, widespread social collapse. What have we learned here ?

    • I agree with you a thousand per cent. You have to treat this like a war and you can not have every Tom Dick and Harry running around causing hysteria like CNN, ABC, BNBC, CBS and PBS.

  • I guess this is off topic, but have to say – i recall Dr. Frieden being very aggressive about ending the opioid epidemic, and it became very hard to buy any drug which would get anyone high.
    For this reason, cough medicine based on codeine became unavailable, and maybe it still is. I know responsible people who have severe cough sometimes when sick – could not get effective medicine.

    God knows how many people had to suffer through terrible pain because of the war on painkilers = which, by the way, were LEGAL to sell, under the right circumstances, but we pharmaceutical company owners going to prison for selling legal products.

    I do not like what I know of Dr. Frieden’s actions so far.

    • I totally agree. He is undermining all the good work that is being done. I think he has been and is more interested in politics and personal publicity than realizing that it is inappropriate for him to be commenting to media outlets as though he speaks for CDC.

  • I would very much like to hear more from the CDC. The daily briefings done by Gov DeWine and Dr Amy Action and the Lt Gov would make an excellent model. No politics, no ego, timely information. I do not expect them to have all the answers. Their educated opinions and their hard work is enough. A similar national message, even weekly would be helpful, if it is consistent and truthful.

  • The purpose of the (citizen/federally funded) CDC is to protect citizens from health threats, not serve a political agenda. Why are the daily COVID19 briefings provided exclusively to the White House, and why are they not publicly available to all ?

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