Last Sunday, President Trump’s White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro, complained that the CDC “really let the country down with the testing.” According to The Post, Deborah Birx, who is overseeing the administration’s coronavirus task force, confronted Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, at a White House meeting, saying she was frustrated at the agency’s antiquated system for tracking virus data. “There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust,” she was quoted by sources as saying.
The CDC did make a major error with the diagnostic test kit. The agency suffered a technical failure with a chemical reagent, then was sluggish in responding. The CDC also had no backup plan, which left the nation more vulnerable when the virus erupted. The CDC should have pivoted to a Plan B, such as the World Health Organization test. It was an uncharacteristic foul-up that cost time and shook confidence in Washington.
But this initial problem was compounded by Mr. Trump’s negligence. He refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic, while his administration dropped the ball on logistics, leading to shortages in diagnostic testing and personal protective equipment.
The CDC was shunted out of the limelight, even though the agency has the explicit job of pandemic preparation and management and has such experienced crisis managers as Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat. Mr. Trump preferred his own ill-informed predictions — the virus will disappear — to the hard truths of scientists. Dr. Redfield’s political skills in the Washington power game have been sorely lacking, and he may have feared Mr. Trump’s wrath, but he should have been more forceful in asserting the CDC’s primacy. It is true that the CDC’s data systems are outdated, but instead of complaining about it, Congress and the administration ought to fix what has been known and neglected for too long.
The CDC has a well-practiced tradition of open and credible public communications about risk in a crisis. Mr. Trump broke every rule with a reckless disregard for truth and transparency. During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and 2010, the CDC held 39 press briefings. This time? Two, and the last was March 14. Then the agency’s detailed recommendations for reopening were held up by a president too eager to rush forward.
The CDC has its problems, but the answer is not to silence it. One result of this pandemic ought to be a long-term commitment to robustly fund public health, including the CDC. More immediately, the American people should be allowed to hear frequently from the agency’s seasoned scientists and public health experts, instead of the White House, which disseminates nonsense about bleach and hydroxychloroquine.