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How Much Worse Did the CDC Make America's Pandemic?

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

“The pandemic was a test of America’s public health bureaucracy. It failed.” Thus begins Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman’s journey into the heart of darkness of America’s public health bureaucracy. The fact that the CDC’s stewardship of public health during the pandemic cost lives shouldn’t obscure the fact that at least some of those lives could have been saved with a thoughtful, science-based response that was largely missing from the CDC’s guidance, especially at the start of the pandemic.

Yes, but didn’t the CDC “follow the science” in crafting policy? Well, yes and no. They followed the science that comported with the dominant political narrative about mandated masks, shutdowns, and school closings. They ignored competing analyses that didn’t fit that narrative.

The CDC’s job is to analyze viral threats to the public, track the spread of disease, and give the public relevant information about how to respond to outbreaks.

The CDC utterly failed in those tasks.

 Not only did the agency do this job poorly in the early stages of the pandemic, but it actively hindered efforts that would have greatly improved America’s response, and it made planning errors that were both predictable and avoidable. At nearly every stage of the pandemic, the CDC got things wrong and got in the way. Its failures almost certainly made America’s pandemic worse.

Perhaps no issue illustrates that CDC’s massive failures better than the rollout of the first tests for COVID-19 and how poor oversight and a tragically short-sighted design doomed the initial tests from the beginning.

First, the Atlanta lab in charge of developing the test departed from the agency’s own initial test, as well as the tests produced by other countries, producing a test design that was more complicated than necessary, with three components rather than two. In theory, this was supposed to make the test more accurate. In practice, it introduced an error into the early stages of the testing process during the early months of 2020, when America could least afford it.

The test kit, it turned out, was contaminated. And the part that was contaminated was the third component the CDC had decided to add at the last minute. What’s more, the contamination happened at least in part because the CDC had decided to produce the test in-house, at a lab not suited for the project, rather than contract it out to private firms with more experience and more rigorous quality controls.

The CDC made the problem worse by an order of magnitude by first refusing to acknowledge the error, then putting roadblocks in the way of those trying to solve it. Eventually, the job was given to private contractors — after the CDC fought to control every detail of the testing.

As director Dr. Scott Gottlieb writes in a new book on the CDC response, Uncontrolled Spread, “the agency may have created the conditions for failure by overengineering its test for COVID and then being wedded to that more complicated design even after the problems arose.”

The CDC also impeded mass testing because, as Gottlieb writes, they weren’t ready for it.

In late March 2020, after much of the country had shut down, the CDC went so far as to “edit an article that was slated for publication in a science journal, to remove a passage inserted by a Washington State public health official that called for widespread testing at senior assisted-living facilities,” Gottlieb writes. Senior living facilities were, of course, among the communities where COVID was most deadly. Yet even there, the agency resisted mass testing. It resisted was because that state official had “encouraged more testing than the CDC was prepared to allow or was able to handle at the time.” In an editing comment on the article, according to Gottlieb, a CDC official explicitly cautioned: “I would be careful promoting widespread testing.”

How many residents of senior living facilities would be alive today if the CDC had allowed for mass testing of vulnerable Americans? In more settled times, a criminal investigation might have been opened against the CDC. But in today’s partisan atmosphere, the CDC is celebrated for its “scientific approach” to the pandemic.

Where was the science when the CDC bowed to pressure from teachers’ unions in keeping the schools shuttered?

We learned earlier this month that the White House and CDC obeyed the diktats of the NEA.

There is something slightly nauseating about how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grovels in obeisance to the mighty teachers’ unions. It appears that the teachers are the CDC’s only clients. And the agency responsible for guiding us through the pandemic seems far more concerned about assisting the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union in its bid to exert influence and control than about helping America slough off the effects of the pandemic and get back to normal.

In some ways, the CDC’s confusion matched that of the scientific community as a brand new “novel” coronavirus wreaked havoc on the world. That the CDC didn’t have all the answers at the beginning was perfectly understandable. That they erred on the side of extreme caution was inevitable.

But what was not understandable or inevitable was the political interference of the agency that made the pandemic much worse than it should have been.