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.
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.
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.