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CDC plans overhaul amid COVID-19 response criticism

(NewsNation) — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky announced plans Monday to overhaul the agency following criticism over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to multiple news organizations referencing an agencywide email, an outside senior federal health official has been selected to conduct a “month-long listening tour and assessment” of the CDC’s structure, systems and processes set to begin on April 11.

In announcing the review, Walensky said in a statement, “CDC is working to strategically position and modernize the agency to facilitate and support the future of public health. As we’ve challenged our state and local partners, we know that now is the time for CDC to integrate the lessons learned into a strategy for the future.”

Additionally, Walensky tapped three senior officials to gather feedback and suggestions for change. To her staff, Walensky said this review would focus on core capabilities including beefing up America’s public health workforce, data modernization, lab capacity and rapid response to disease outbreaks.

The CDC has faced heavy criticism over its lack of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic and was called out by public health experts for its confusing isolation and quarantine guidance.

“Never in its 75-year history has CDC had to make decisions so quickly, based on often limited, real-time, and evolving science,” Walensky said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented opportunities across HHS to review current organizational structures, systems, and processes, and CDC is working to strategically position and modernize the agency to facilitate and support the future of public health.”

At one point during the pandemic, a face mask shortage prompted the CDC to loosen its coronavirus guidance for front-line health workers, advising that the limited reserve of N95 masks only be used for the riskiest situations.

From a public health standpoint, the CDC was not as prepared as it could have been, according to Fort Worth, Texas, cardiologist Dr. Fahmi J. Farah.

“I don’t think that, unfortunately, CDC was as prepared as it should have been,” she said. “We didn’t even have enough resources such as masks, PPEs even for critical health care workers. In the ICUs, we were missing masks to protect ourselves and that jeopardized quite a few health care workers at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Farah cited mask guidance as one of the early CDC messaging inconsistencies.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, we were told that masks were not necessary, not even for health care workers,” she said. “And as the pandemic moved forward, clearly, that was not the right message because we knew how important masks and PPPs were, especially for health care workers who are working directly with ICU-level patients in the work infected with COVID, and many health care providers were jeopardized as a result of that.”

Farah said she does believe the CDC is doing everything they can to help, but “coherent and consistent” messaging would be helpful for the public and health care workers.

“I will say (COVID-19) is something that no one has foresight on or can possibly because it is a completely new and different thing we’re dealing with,” she said.

The CDC is still a trusted source not only for pandemic guidance, but for “all preventative risks and vaccinations and guidelines,” according to Farah.

A Gallup poll last summer found only 32% of people thought the CDC was communicating a clear path to COVID-19 prevention. And this January, a Pew Research Center poll said that 60% of people thought the CDC recommendations were confusing.

“I do believe that the trust in CDC has dwindled a little bit,” she said. “Not just from the public, but also from the health care field.”

Farah said “having fresh perspective would be helpful” as the CDC opens itself up for review.

“Even when you’re doing everything right, there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “And I am a big proponent of fresh new eyes, fresh perspectives so that we can dissect our problems.”

In order to regain the public’s trust, Farah suggested being “more transparent in terms of the data where the decision is coming from.”

“My hope moving forward for CDC,” she said, “is that it’ll completely separate itself from any other interest other than public health.”


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