The outgoing head of the top federal public health agency has issued a dire warning to the public: America is not prepared for the next inevitable public health crisis.
Rochelle Walensky, who will depart from her $200,000-a-year post as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of June after a tumultuous tenure that saw her preside over the agency’s fatally flawed response to Covid.
Her replacement, Dr Mandy Cohen, is a former public health official from North Carolina and zealot for Covid rules such as widespread masking, as evidenced by her mask emblazoned with Dr Anthony Fauci’s face.
But speaking at a time when the country is still reeling from the global crisis that killed least seven million people worldwide and pummeled the US economy, Dr Walensky said America is not prepared for the next crisis, pointing to the nation’s skimpy public health workforce and reliance on outdated technology including ‘fax machines’.
The shift in CDC leadership comes on the heels of the pandemic, during which time public trust in the federal health agency suffered huge declines
Falling trust in the CDC during the pandemic was evident across party lines as safety and health guidance spilled over into daily life, affecting the economy, schools, and social life
When Rochelle Walensky took the helm at the CDC in 2021, nearly 1.2 million Americans had gotten so sick to the point of being hospitalized and over 390,000 people had died with Covid.
The pandemic exposed cracks in the country’s fragile public health infrastructure, as evidenced by overwhelmed city-run hospitals strapped for resources, a dearth of qualified providers caused by massive funding cuts, and the disproportionately high rates of Americans having pre-existing health conditions including obesity and diabetes compared to peer countries.
Public trust in the agency also took a massive hit during the crisis due to muddled messaging and what many saw was officials there overstepping their bounds and inserting themselves into political and social matters too much.
Perhaps most notable examples were the government’s about-face when it came to the usefullness of masks in professional settings such as healthcare facilities as well as in schools.
Dr Walensky is far from the only scientist warning that another health crisis is inescapable, which could take the form of another viral plague caused by bird flu or drug-resistant gonorrhea or be a result of a devastating natural disaster.
Walensky said in a New York Times opinion piece: ‘I want to remind America: The question is not if there will be another public health threat, but when. The C.D.C. needs public and congressional support if it is going to be prepared to protect you from future threats.’
And according to the agency’s outgoing top boss, public and congressional support has been lacking.
Dr Walensky said: ‘Decades of underinvestment in public health rendered the United States ill prepared for a global pandemic. Some estimates suggest we are 80,000 public health workers short across the United States to meet basic public health needs.
‘To this day some of our public health data systems are reliant on old fax machines. National laboratories lack both state-of-the-art equipment and skilled bench scientists to work them.’
This reliance on outdated technology was borne out during the pandemic when case, hospitalization, and death reporting often lagged behind the true pace of the disease’s spread, often leading the public into underestimating the severity of the situation.
State officials proved during the pandemic that public health departments are keeping fax machine technology alive, primarily because it complies with digital privacy standards for health information, with troubling consequences.
In Washington state, for instance, one health department had to enlist the help of 25 National Guardsmen to assist with dogged manual data entry during the first year of the pandemic.
And in Austin, Texas, the health department was inundated with around 1,000 faxes a day, often containing duplicate results, and sometimes lacking crucial information needed for contact tracing new cases. In the end, officials were getting test results over a week after the tests were conducted, far too late to intercept spread.
Walensky also hinted at controversy over the agency’s role in school closures during the height of the pandemic, when blue states overwhelmingly moved to shutter schools to keep transmission down while red states fought hard to bring kids back to in-person classes as soon as possible, sometimes in spite of what public health experts recommended.
While the CDC does not dictate what schools can do – that’s up to individual school districts and their superintendents – Walensky took a fair share of criticism for what many in the public believed was an overzealous state of caution that sacrificed the well-being and education of children.
She said: ‘I believe that scientific expertise should not take a back seat to partisan will. That said, public health and scientific recommendations inevitably intersect with social values and policy.
‘We in public health must recognize that recommendations do not occur within a vacuum; rather, they affect other sectors of American life — education, the economy and national security, to name a few.’
Dr Walensky’s successor will be Dr Mandy Cohen, former North Carolina Health Secretary who was recently appointed by President Joe Biden earlier this month.
The Obama-era health official is also a trained internal medicine physician who helped run the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) which oversees government-issued healthcare benefits, and aided in the implementation of Obamacare.