How the CDC’s communication failures during Covid tarnished the agency
At the start of Covid, staffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sought to give Americans advice on maintaining some semblance of normality during a once-in-a-century pandemic that had upended daily life.
A recommendation ? Play basketball with your friends — online.
There was a big problem: the best public health professionals in the country did not consult with the very colleagues who would be responsible for communicating this advice to the public.
“We need to get a seat at the table earlier, so we can raise our hands and say, ‘Hey guys, I’m sorry, but playing basketball with your friends virtually is probably not a good recommendation,'” he said. said a CDC staff member. NBC News before adding, “That’s pretty dumb.”
Another staff member echoed the frustration. “There were a number of people inside the agency who were sometimes puzzled as to whether what we were recommending was really practical.”
Communication failures like that, along with far more consequential mistakes, would continue throughout the pandemic, deeply tarnishing the agency — long considered the gold standard of public health institutions. The errors have left career scientists and other longtime employees worried that the wounds cannot be healed.
It all culminated in what would become a series of troubling defining moments for CDC employees who say the agency was unable to act quickly enough for the public with science strong enough to answer their own expectations.
This account is based on interviews with seven CDC employees who spoke to NBC News about their experiences during the pandemic on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the issues. All but one have been with the agency for at least 14 years, and three are approaching or past their third decade of service.
While some employees say they are optimistic about the agency’s ability to improve its public health responses, blunders during the Covid response still haunt those who have dedicated their lives to public health.
“When people ask, ‘where do you work?’ I used to say ‘I work at the CDC’ with pride,” one staffer said. “Now I’m just telling people I work in public health and not exactly where I work because it’s just going to become a discussion about our failures.”
“People’s lives were changing based on our decisions,” said a senior scientist at the agency. “Fear, anxiety, stress…” the person said, pausing. “If only we could have stopped time.”
“There will be headlines praising you and headlines criticizing you,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News. “It was going to be tough for the agency, but it rocked. I can tell you many times I had these big decisions…many nights where I lost sleep.
Six of the CDC employees who spoke to NBC News were either interviewed or heavily involved in a high-profile review of the agency this year. The review was commissioned by Walensky and led by Jim Macrae, a longtime public servant with the Department of Health and Human Services.
“In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky said in a statement in August after the review was completed. Macrae’s report on the agency’s response to the pandemic, released Sept. 1, echoes the need for the CDC to act faster and more reliably.
Not all employees were satisfied with the proposed changes. “I’ve certainly spoken to staff members who are very distressed about this and feel very concerned,” a senior manager said.
Another was more blunt: “It’s going to piss off a lot of people, and people are going to leave.”
But others said they were relieved to see their frustrations outlined in Macrae’s final report, and ultimately all agreed the agency needed to make drastic changes before the next public health emergency.