The outgoing chief of the federal public health agency has issued a dire warning to the public: America is unprepared for the next inevitable public health crisis.
Rochelle Walensky, who will leave 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 in which she presided over the agency’s fatally flawed response to Covid.
Her replacement, Dr. Mandy Cohen, is a former North Carolina public health official and zealot for Covid rules, such as widespread masking, as evidenced by her mask decorated with the face of Dr. Anthony Fauci.
But speaking at a time when the country is still reeling from the global crisis that has killed at least seven million people worldwide and ravaged the US economy, Dr Walensky said said America is unprepared for the next crisis, pointing to the country’s meager health workforce and reliance on outdated technology, including “fax machines.”
Shift in CDC leadership follows the pandemic, during which time public trust in the federal health service plummeted
Declining trust in the CDC during the pandemic was evident across party lines as safety and health guidelines spilled into everyday life, impacting the economy, schools and social life
When Rochelle Walensky took over at the GGD in 2021, nearly 1.2 million Americans had become so ill that he was hospitalized and more than 390,000 people had died from Covid.
The pandemic visible cracks in the country’s fragile public health infrastructure, as evidenced by overwhelmed city-run hospitals strapped for resources, a lack of qualified providers caused by massive budget cutsand the disproportionately high numbers of Americans with pre-existing health problems, including obesity and diabetes compared to comparable countries.
Public confidence in the agency also took a huge hit during the crisis due to the confused reporting and what many saw was officials there overstepping their boundaries and getting too involved in political and social affairs.
Perhaps the most notable examples were the government’s U-turn on the usefulness of masks in professional settings such as healthcare facilities and schools.
Dr. Walensky is far from the only scientist to warn that a new health crisis is inescapable, which could take the form of another viral plague caused by avian flu or drug-resistant gonorrhea or result from a devastating natural disaster.
Walensky said in a New York Times op-ed: “I want to remind America: the question is not if there will be another threat to public health, but when. The CDC needs the support of the public and Congress if it is to be prepared to protect you from future threats.”
And according to the agency’s outgoing top boss, it lacked public and congressional support.
Dr. Walensky said: “Decades of underinvestment in public health left the United States ill-prepared for a global pandemic. Some estimates suggest that we are 80,000 health workers short in the United States to meet basic public health needs.
“To this day, some of our public health data systems depend on legacy fax machines. National laboratories lack both state-of-the-art equipment and skilled laboratory scientists to work with it.’
This reliance on outdated technology was confirmed during the pandemic, when reporting of cases, hospitalization and death often lagged the true rate of the disease’s spread, often leading the public to underestimate the seriousness of the situation.
State officials have proven during the pandemic that public health departments are keeping fax machine technology alive, especially as it complies with digital privacy standards for health information, with troubling consequences.
In Washington state, for example, one health department had to enlist the help of 25 National Guardsmen to help with stubborn manual data entry during the first year of the pandemic.
And in Austin, Texas, the health department was inundated with about 1,000 faxes a day, often with duplicate results and sometimes lacking crucial information needed to track new cases. In the end, officials got the test results more than a week after the tests were conducted, far too late to intercept the spread.
Walensky also alluded to controversy over the agency’s role in school closures during the height of the pandemic, as the blue states moved en masse to shutter schools to keep transmission down, while the red states fought hard to get kids back to face-to-face classes as quickly as possible to get. sometimes despite what public health experts recommended.
While the CDC doesn’t dictate what schools can do — that’s up to individual school districts and their superintendents — Walensky drew quite a bit of criticism for what many in the public felt was an overzealous state of caution that could affect children’s well-being and education.
She said, “I believe that scientific expertise should not take second place to partisan will. That said, public health and scientific recommendations inevitably intersect with societal values and policies.
“We in public health need to recognize that recommendations don’t happen in a vacuum; rather, they affect other sectors of American life — education, economics, and national security, to name a few.”
Dr. Walensky’s successor will be Dr. Mandy Cohen, former North Carolina Secretary of Health who was recently appointed by President Joe Biden earlier this month.
The Obama-era health officer is also a trained internal medicine physician who helped run the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) which oversees government-issued health benefits, and helped implement Obamacare.